Sign of a masterpiece: Mallet instruments, voices and organ

I’ve known Steve Reich’s hypnotic Music for Mallet instruments, voices and organ ever since my second year of college, when someone in the sixth form made me a recording, together with Six Pianos, Large Ensemble and Vermont Counterpoint, which pretty much defined my musical love ever since. That means I’ve known the piece for well over … *coughs, mumbles into hand… years; it’s gone through most of the recorded formats I can think of – cassette, CD, mini-disc, mp3, DVD – and yet I am still hearing new aspects of the piece when I listen to it.

This may, of course, be due to several factors; different recordings have different values, perhaps highlighting different lines or patterns compared to others; seeing the piece performed means the ear can be draw to different lines by virtue of the eye being drawn by some aspect of the visual spectacle; and listening in the car, immersed in the sound emanating from speakers fore and aft, is a very different experience to listening through headphones.

Album coverBut I’m still being surprised and delighted by the discovery of patterns I hadn’t heard before, textural shifts I’d not noticed, harmonies that are altered by suddenly hearing a new pedal-point or sustained note. There’s a wonderful, deft live performance by Alarm Will Sound, broadcast as Reich at the Roxy that I’ve watched often, which showed me new material by my watching the performers in actin and highlighting certain textural aspects I hadn’t discerned previously.

It’s often said that one of the signs of a masterpiece, in any artistic medium, is the work’s ability to sustain the repeated experience and yield new elements. If this is true, then Reich’s piece stands as an example of just such a work.

The music of the spheres

I have often wondered how the Music of the Spheres might sound, that music created by the movement of the planets, or what the music of the afterlife (should there be one) might be like.

I think I may have found it. A disc brought out by The Change-Ringing Handbell Group in 2009 of various bell-ringing patterns, normally rung by church bells but here realised by handbells instead, presents some shimmering cascades of sound, like a cross between minimalism and sacred music: process music for the ecclesiastically minded.

Listening to patterns such as Treble Bob Sixteen-In, you can almost sense the bright vision of angels and the ringing celebration of eternal harmony.

Or Bristol Surprise Maximus

I love process music, as early Minimalism is often also called, the working-out of pre-ordained sequences of music until the pattern has been completed, before moving on to the next one. Steve Reich’s influential Music for Eighteen Musicians is built entirely on this principle, working out patterns over a sequence of eleven chords; the piece is complete when the cycles have been worked through over each of the eleven chords, at which point the chords are played through  in pulses and the music ceases.

The principle applies here, as the changes are rung through until completion. But this doesn’t mean that the music, of the handbell group or of Reich’s piece, lacks colour, harmony, or feeling. On the contrary, there are some tremendously expressive harmonies in the Reich, and the tintinnabulations of the handbell sequences have a wonderfully bright sheen, glittering with colour. There’s an infectious sense of celebration, of jubilation and good cheer about the bell-ringing patterns, an eternity of endless sunshine-drenched summer, of rainbow colours.

Process music need not be without espressivity.

(Audio extracts via LastFM).

Ghost written: Kate Bush’s perfect pop

A lone clock, ticking away the endless hours. A sense of absence, of something missing, of time passing yet never moving forward. Time and timelessness colliding, pulling ineffectually at one another.

All these are perfectly captured in Kate Bush’s ‘Watching You Without Me,’  from 1985’s perfect Hounds of Love, which never puts a foot wrong.

The piece is a study in white. Stravinsky talked about writing ‘white music’ in the strings-only ballet-score for Apollon Musagete or the Mass;

In ‘Watching You Without Me,’ Kate Bush achieves a similar effect in pop; it’s a song in monochrome, the washed-out grey and white colours a perfect palette for the song’s narrative. The endless hours are marked in the ticking rim-shot of the snare-drum; the simple ostinato moving  across open fifths Bb-F / C-G, fleeting comments from the upright bass, and the occasional surge and fade of accompanying strings.

The sense of absence in the lyrics is created in the music by the lack of major or minor thirds in the harmonies. There are only two chords in the whole piece, which cycles endlessly between open fifths on Bb and C; the major third, when it does appear, is only fleetingly given in the sung melody – the lack of either third in the harmony creates a sparse, skeletal feel; this sits neatly with the singer’s sense of being ‘not here.’ Her ghostliness is an insubstantial as the harmonies.

The lone cries of the seagull towards the end, the fractured spoken passages, all reinforce the idea of loneliness, of the inability to communicate, of being apart.

Steve Reich writes music that uses one chord (Four Organs); Kate Bush writes a piece that only moves between two; in both pieces, you’re not really aware of the duration of the piece at all.  Minimalism finds itself a home in more than just the classical genre. Reich, Kate Bush: both fantastic composers.

In defense of Minimalism

Everyone’s heard the criticism: minimalism is tiresome, repetitive, banal, boring, uninventive, uninteresting. It never evolves, never goes anywhere, the pieces drive you nuts. I admit, there are some pieces of minimalism where this is the case.

But then I remember there’s the shimmering colours of Music for Eighteen Musicians,  the bright sunlit textures of Glass’ North Star, the appealingly understated beauty of Glassworks, and I disagree.

Music for 18 Musicians: London Sinfonietta

There’s real colour here; the repeating figures gradually extend and overlap, creating an exotic soundworld which is always evolving, not remaining static. In later works, Reich embraced the audio sampler, creating textures of out sampled urban sounds in works like City Life, a modern take on musique concréte.

Minimalism has even expanded, if you’ll allow post-Minimalism to be included, which is how John Adams’ thinks of his composing, to embrace political issues in opera, as in Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer.

Glass has written soundtracks to mainstream cinema, for films like The Illusionist and Kundun, using his minimalist language; whilst his solo piano works have a genuine beauty in their stark simplicity.

British composer Michael Nyman remains popular through ‘The Heart Asks Pleasure First’ from his soundtrack to The Piano (even though other works, like The Musicologist’s Scores, premiered at the Proms in 2009, are inifintely better).

Of course, Minimalism’s reliance on repetition and recurring harmonies or harmonic cycles will not appeal to everyone; perhaps because you have to listen to the music in a different way. You have to expand the time-scale of your listening, and follow the tiny nuances as a phrase lengthens by a single note or changes its rhythm; you have to follow the evolution of the melodic lines, of the rhythmic patterns, and follow one against the other to see how they interlock, and appreciate the vertical sonorities created as a result. Contrary to how most people might think one listens to Minimalism – simply letting it wash over you – you have to listen to it actively, attentively; you can’t just wallow in it, otherwise it will feel unchanging and never-ending. You have to be alive to the tiny changes to be aware of how the music is evolving; it demands concentration.

And the music can dance, too: boy, can it dance. Listen to Adams’ ‘The Chairman Dances,’ an orchestral showpiece distilled from the final act of Nixon in China; compulsive fox-trotting.

There’s more to minimalism than meets the ear; try it. As the old television advert for a powdered tea used to say: you might like it. Lazy listeners might say it’s dull: listen for yourself, and then tell them they’re wrong.

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