New York Counterpoint

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Background Information and Performance Circumstanc


  • Steve Reich born in 1936.
  • American composer - pioneer of minimalism. 
  • Contemporaries: Philip Glass and Terry Riley - became known as 'The New York Hypnotic School'.

New York Counterpoint

  • Written in 1985 as part of a series of works exploring counterpoint.
  • In each piece, one player is responsible for playing all contrapuntal strands of music but is precorded so the final performance is a backing track with live solo performance. 
  • Commissioned by Fromm Music Foundation.
  • First performance took place in Avery Music Hall, New York in 1986 by Richard Stoltzmann. 
  • 3 movement work.
  • Intention was to capture the throbbing vibrancy of Manhattan. 
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Performing Forces and their Handling

  • Isolated to 1 instruments: Bb clarinet and bass clarinet. 
  • One performer who prerecords 10 parts and performs live part over prerecorded backing track. 
  • Music sounds a note lower than notated.
  • Clarinets 1-3 use same melodic material within a range of C#-C#. 
  • Clarinets 4-6 work in a similar way but A-A.
  • Clarinets 7-10 cover a wide range and generally play persistent repeating notes.
  • Exception: bars 1-12 - clarinets are grouped in pairs. 
  • Extremes of register are avoided except part 10 to play the lowest available note (bar 33 onwards).
  • Live clarinet has most active part: low A - high C#. 
  • Timbre limited to clarinet tone but still some variety due to contrasting sound created by the clarinets 3 different registers - chalumeu, clarino and altissimo. 
  • Complete homogeneity of tone due to solo player performance. 
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  • Counterpoint plays a key role.
  • Texture is an important feature.
  • Persistent use of staggered repetition of melodic material at the heart of construction.
  • Not an example of phasing.
  • Movement gradually grows in instrumental density from 2 instruments playing homorhythmically at start; bar 3 - entry of 2 further parts; bar 9 onwards - 6-11 parts playing.
  • All instruments play 2 bar units which repeat constantly in ostinati manner. 
  • Bar 3: initial 2 part counterpoint consists of imitation at 1 quaver distance. 
  • Bar 13: music divides into 3 undouble homorhythmic pairings and a 3 part canonic texture with each entry at 1 quaver emerges. 
  • Bar 21: Clarinet 3 enters with identical line to live Clarinet.
  • Bar 25: Live Clarinet begins solo passagework, Clarinet 3 left to maintain individual line within canonic texture.
  • Live Clarinet and Clarinets 7-10 add other material, texture remains unaltered. 
  • Opening bars consist of clarinets playing in homorhythm at interval of compound 3rd apart.
  • Final bar returns to homorhythmic with Clarinets 1 - 4. 
  • Bar 27: Clarinets 7 - 10 enter with repetitive semiquavers creating feeling of pulsating chordal homophony.
  • Live Clarinet plays more intricate, soloistic melodic line which gives feeling of textural independence. 
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Texture cont'd

  • Dynamics play vital role in chordal homophony. 
  • Four lower parts fade in and out of overall texture with carefully graduated crescendoes and diminuendoes. 
  • Clarinets 1 - 6 never rise above mf and mp throughout.
  • Live Clarinet and Clarinets 7 - 10 instructed to reach f at peak of 'fade in' and 'fade out' patterns - given brief textural dominance before fading back into the background.
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  • No definite structural label.
  • Evolves as a product of textural and melodic elements. 
  • Bars 1 - 12: Introduction of melodic/canonic material as the number of instruments playing increases.
  • Bars 13 - 71: Unchanging 3 part canon using 2 bar ostinato patterns. 
  • Bars 25 - 66: Live Clarinet fades in and out with solo line. 
  • Bars 27 - 65: Parts 7 - 10 fade in and out with 4-part chords in semiquavers. 
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  • Diatonic throughout.
  • 6-note scale is basis of all melodic material throughout - hexatonic scale.
  • E - F# - G# - A# - B - C#.
  • Use of A# is noteworthy - without it pattern could be described as hexachord but with it the scale becomes Lydian in character. 
  • Melodic pattern consists mainly of leaps but there is some stepwise pattern.
  • Leaps usually outline broken chords or arppeggio pattern.
  • Each recorded Clarinet melodies stays within limited range of an octave.
  • Bars 25 - 66: Live Clarinet extends it range to over 2 octaves. 
  • Live Clarinet more extreme in disjuct melodic shapes. 
  • Bar 35: 2 ascending minor 6th leaps followed by minor 7th descent, after which the line continues to head lower when an ascent might have seemed natural. 
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  • Influences come from Indian and Balinese music as well as some contemporary Jazz. 
  • Essentially diatonic.
  • Alternation of chords IV (EM) and V (F#M) forms main harmonic movement. 
  • Alternation is not totally straightforward. 
  • Because of staggered entries there is harmonic blurring where one chord merges with the next before becoming fully independent. 
  • Overlap of chords results in brief but audible dissonance each time.
  • Entry of parts 7 - 10 on chordal semiquavers introduces a non-functional element. 
  • 3 different chords used in the textural layer. 
  • Bar 27: BM chord over a C# in the bass.
  • Bar 33: E - G# - D# - A# (3 upper parts a 5th apart).
  • Bar 39: F#M chord over G# in the bass. 
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  • Tonality is never clearly established due to harmonic stasis and avoidance of D#s.
  • Key signature suggests B Major. 
  • Lack of key defining cadence due to reliance on chords IV and V.
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Rhythm and Metre

  • Simple triple throughout.
  • Listener would find it hard to discern time signature. 
  • Mainly built on short rhythmic units featuring grouped semiquavers interspersed with longer notes and separated by rests. 
  • After homorhythmic start, counterpoint gradually builds in rhythmic complexity.
  • When Clarinets 7 - 10 enter there is a perpetual semiquaver impetus. 
  • Begins as fragmented rhythmic feel evolves into complex tapestry of rhythms .
  • Bar 3: Should be syncopation but syncopation is only effective when working against an audibly defined metre  - this doesn't happen. 
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