Music as an Audible Process

In his published essay "Music as a Gradual Process (1968)", Steve Reich set down, not only a clearer understanding of his work but a greater understanding of the process he used in order to arrive at its composition. With this book he asserted his own preference that if a compositional process is used by a composer then it should be audible. That the process should be synonymous with the music itself and not simply a structure for the music.

One only has to listen to the works of Steve Reich to become aware that the process is deliberately being made audible. This is especially true of his earlier works when the point needed to be made very clear to an array of unsympathetic musicians, critics and academics. Yet, even in his later works and the pieces he composes today, we can still hear that the process is, at the very least, uncoverable. It is a hidden scaffold behind the set, a structure just beneath the surface if one chooses to delve for it.

An audible process in music must not be confused with "Process-Music"; a term derived from the serialist and post-modern works that Reich reacted against. The term was used as a decription for music composed using no form of traditional score; rather the composer lists the instructions that the performers must use in order to create the music. This "process-notation" directs the performer in a course of action without specifying the final sound achieved, such as John Cage's 4'33".

The term "Systems Music" has also been, perhaps correctly, used as an umbrella for such composers as Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and La Monte Young, as their work concerns the gradual evolution of sound continuums. Their work is often based heavily in repetition, with variations in timbre, dynamics, pitch or tempo reduced down to their essence.

The audible process that Reich refers to is an invitation to focus intently upon a slowly mutating sound scheme and to scrutinise the various uncovered details that result. In order to focus upon the aspects and effects of any given process, Reich suggested that it should evolve slowly; bringing the concepts behind the composition closer to the fore than the emotional flow of the music and allowing the listener to concentrate upon the details of the sound and its form.

He states :
"Musical processes can give one a direct control with the impersonal and also a kind of complete control ... by this I mean: by running this material through that process I completely control all that results but I also accept all that results without changes."

Audible Process in Other Areas

Reich is the first to point out that his work utilises a great deal of traditional ideas from western music theory, despite its seeming dependence upon non-western influences. Reich brought the concept of an "audible process" into the awareness of his own time, yet "process" can be seen as merely another way of labeling form and structure.

Musical form is a collection of aquired traditions in composition, a structural framework used to organise a piece of music; such as the arch form, binary, sonata, etc. Contrapuntal forms like the fugue or canon are certainly an aspect to Reichs work, yet they still manage to evade the truest nuances of Reichs sound.

Counterpoint involves two or more lines, operating independantly in order to express a sound that generates a seperate effect when in combination. The canon being defined by continuous imitation seems an ideal description for many of Reichs music. The fugue uses a single subject and has an exposition that restates the subject by each voice in turn, the fugue also uses many structural processes of composition; e.g. inversion, retrograde, augmentation, fragmentation, counterexposition, etc. One could be forgiven for assuming that Western Classical music theory would have the terms for a dissemination of Reichs music waiting at hand; but there is something in Reichs gradual process that requires new terminology. When Come Out or Four Organs was released into the wilds of public reaction, Reich had already slipped out of the grasp of traditional theory.

Here, we can see that there is a fundamental difference between the traditions of form and structure and the audible process that Reich employs. The form is a skeleton upon which a composer would hang the flesh of music, according to their own will and aesthetics; it guides the music by it's harmonic relationships and it's progessions. The process dictates the music, the composition is the process.

When Reich Remixed was released in 1999 the work of Reichs work became a source for DJs and dance artists to attempt a reinvention. The result offers some proof that the alterations between Reich's compositions and the acceptable state of modern listening sensibilities, are very slight. It does not take much re-mixing before becoming directly commercial for a mainstream audience and the modern absorbtion with the loop and the ambient make a lot of Reich's work very acceptable. Finally, it seems, people are "getting it".

Reich, however, makes a clear delianation between his music and such modal forms as Indian Classical, progressive rock or, by extension, ambiant music such as Brian Eno's original ambient piece, Music for Airports; where the music was used as a background noise or environmental sound.

Such forms bring awareness of the intricasies and details held within the music by use of repetition, trance inducing drones and unmoving harmonic centres. However, even when we try to see the fugues of Bach or the rhythms of modern club oriented dance music as examples of an audible process, it is clear that they are simply frameworks for the composers improvisational skills and not the process itself. The process will, in contrast, simultaneously dictate the overall form and the note to note procedure.

"One can't improvise in a musical process...The two concepts are mutually exclusive".

Reichs Development

It is clear when examining Reichs history that he was somehow destined to arrive at his conclusions, with hindsight it seems obvious but, more realisticly, it was these experiences that allowed him to discover his process naturally.

Reich's first love, as far as music was concerned, was with drumming and jazz; studying drumming as early as fourteen. The the traditional tutalage of Juliard tried to impose its practically conformist views on Reich but when he received his M.A. in Music from Mills College in 1963, he worked with Luciano Berio and Darius Milhaud. It was Berio who noted that Reich was not using the traditional forms of composition but was repeating sections over and over, allowing them to evolve and despite the social pressures to focus on serialism, it was Berio who is quoted as having said to Reich : "If you want to write tonal music, why don't you write tonal music?"

Further to his initial learning experiences, Reich has exherted a great deal of effort in order to immerse himself in non-western techniques, where he confirmed that acoustic instruments could provide a richer source of sound and that drumming was valid as a vehicle for expression of his ideas. During 1970 he studied drumming at the Institute for African Studies at the University of Ghana in Accra. In 1973 and 1974 he studied Balinese Gamelan Semar Pegulingan and Gamelan Gambang at the American Society for Eastern Arts in Seattle and Berkeley, California. From 1976 to 1977 he rediscovered his heritage with the study of cantillation of the Hebrew scriptures in New York and the heart of Jerusalem.

When discussing his much applauded work Music for 18 Musicians, Reich offers the following insight :
"The models I had in mind were West African drumming and Balinese gamelan. The conductorial responsibilities for eighteen people playing together and making changes together devolves onto members of the ensemble. Primarily the vibraphone and first bass clarinet. Basically, what you have is chamber music where everybody has to listen to each other, be aware of each other, because there's a lot of audible internal cueing, most obviously by the vibraphone and the bass clarinet. This creates an atmosphere where you have to be in touch with each other or you can't play the piece. There is also a kind of communal aspect to that, which musicians genuinely enjoy."


Reaction Against Serialism

Reich has certainly reacted to and moved away from the radical aspects of serialism and chance based music that precceded him; keeping the industrialised, impersonal or objective aspects of post modernism and returning to a harmonic tonality; though no longer rooted in traditional western theory but more to rural or eastern methodoligy, such as the Gamalan music or the idea of creating music by adding together sections.

The avant garde of the 60's composers were determined to abandon the system of traditional Western Classical music threory with the emergance of aleatoric techniques. This provoked american composers to react against the incomprehensible complexities with a 'back to basics' approach that exemplified the microcosms of music as opposed to macrocosm.

The prevalent aspects of composition that were found during Reichs development as a composer were found within the realms of serialism; music using a fixed order of elements. "Chance Music" used random elements in either the composition or performance of a piece. "Aleatory" techniques also involved chance but with the use of selective aspects of control, predetermination or limits. "Indeterminacy" refers to a performance or composition where the outcome is unkown.

Reich has observed that with such methods there is a chasm that exists between the method of compositional process and the final acoustic result; that it is almost impossible to follow the implementation of the process. In serialism the melodic line is obscured by the almost computational procedure of composition and with the works of Cage, the actual operations that generated the chance are never materialsied in the final piece.

He states :
"The process of using the I Ching or observing the imperfections in manuscript paper cannot be heard when listening to music composed that way. The compositional process and the sounding music have no audible connection."

The Audible Process of Steve Reich

Reichs involvement with the traditional knowledge of the Western Classical music schools, his leaning towards jazz and utilisation of structures and harmonies from non-western music have lead, ultimately, to a disctinctive sound that personal to Reich. The following is an attempt to classify Reichs methods, to codify the process' that Reich has made audible in his work. The terms may not in all cases be accurately applied or labled but in it's essence it provides an idea of those concepts that have lead Reich to his current luminary status.

Tonality - A return to tonal harmony, but using non-traditional harmonic progressions; avoiding the equal stress of atonal or pantonal music.

Pulse - Modelled after Javanese and African music, an underlying rhythm matrix is employed to lend the rhythm power as a driving force behind construction and composition. The rhythmic patterns are being used as form; bringing harmony into the rhythm and obscuring it in the pulse.

Phasing - The simultaneous play of two sounds, one slightly off from the other in either tempo or starting point. Reich examined the variations to be found in the application of the phase and how it changes over time. Though discovered through the medium of the reel-to-reel, Reich felt that it must also be applicable to acoustic instruments and human performance.

Minimalism - The limitation of musical materials with which to work with. Minimalism, has been used to refer to a style of music that uses a very small amount of material, repeats it and gradually varies it.

Cantillation - As re-discovered by Reich through his reunification with his Jewish heritage, the cantillation of the Hebrew scriptures take pre-existing melodic motives and strings them together to form larger melodic lines.

Moment-form - The technique of gradually substituting beats for rests (or rests for beats) within a repeating rhythmic cycle; such as Stockhausen's Momente.

Tibre Alteration - The gradual changing of timbre while rhythm and pitch remain unaltered. Juxtaposition - The simultaneous combination of instruments of a different timbre.

Imitation - The use of the human voice to become part of the musical ensemble by imitating the exact sound of the instruments. The voices will often pick up underlying melodies that resulted from the interplay of phased elements.


The Works of Reich and the Audible Process

It's Gonna Rain and Come Out - Both quite pure forms of the early techniques of phasing, using tape reels and captured sound. Both pieces had political or documentary qualities that arose from the choices and uses of the sound source. Clapping Music - A basic phase piece but this time utilises the simplest form of percussion and a stricter phase distance where the amount of phase is in line with the tempo. Here is a direct relation to Spanish Flamenco, Goucho clapping and overlaid rhythmic cycles.

Piano Phase, Violin Phase and Electric Guitar Phase - Reichs first gradual process pieces that fully explored the ideas of phasing with instruments.

Drumming - Represents the final expansion and refinement of the phasing process in Reich's work; utilising imitation, timbre alteration, juxtaposition and moment-form.

The Desert Music - Using cycles of harmonies and a traditional arch form, strongly presenting a series of pulsed chords.

Variations for Winds, Strings and Keyboards - Using three statements of a single harmonic progression which forms the background to the intricate variations, here we see the influences of Perotin and the use of elongated tones as a means to bind a composition together.

Sextet - Using harmonic organisations of a chord cycle, employing the techniques of phasing, moment-form and double canons.

Six Marimbas - Three marimbas play a repeating pattern, which is then mainpulated to form an out of phase canonic relationship.

Different Trains - The best example of the documentary nature of using recorded natural speech and a synthesis with the music by using the Imitation technique.

Triple Quartet - Use of variation forms and harmonic cycles.

New York Counterpoint/ Electronic Counterpoint/ Vermont Counterpoint - Use of phasing as a canonical structure where the subject is played against copies of self and staggered to increase the audibility of the process.

Four Organs - Strikingly un-phased, this piece instead focuses on the elongation of a single dominant eleventh chord by one note at a time. This kind of work was so provocative of a reaction either in favour or against, that Reich was clamped into the publics conception of Minimalism. The piece is an expression of concept more than it is a harmoniously musical composition.

Eight Lines - Using cantillation techniques of stringing melodic sedctions together to form longer melodies, taking the fragments from the fabric of the underlying canons.

Music For Eighteen Musicians - Reich has expressed that this is both his favourite piece of work and the most harmonically rich, employing virtually all of the techniques that could be called Reichian along side a gamut of traditional western music practises.

How Reich Has Moved From Pure to Sublimated Process

Reich may have discovered phasing and introduced the audible process but his music has changed from the process being absolute to the process being sublimated. As the use of texture gets richer it becomes more difficult and often less of a requirement to be able to percieve the process. With Reichs musical journey from the direct and confrontational sounds of Four Organs and Come Out, through the developments in phasing, such as Drumming, to the intensely rich worlds created in Tehillim and on into the video and theatrical pieces like Three Tales; Reich has moved on but has never abandoned his methods.

In closing, Steve Reich states perfectly where our expections should lie when seeking the audibility of process :

"I think people suffer from a misconception, not only about me, but about music theory and its relation to music practice. Whatever music theory you encounter, certainly including the rules of four-part harmony, was written after a style had been worked out by ear, and by a good musical ear. Of course its good for a student to learn the rules of four-part harmony, but with the understanding that they're just student exercises and that parallel fifths may be perfect in another context. All music theory refers to something that has already happened, but if it is taken as a prescription, or worse as a manifesto, heaven help you."

Catjuju, 2003