Steve Reich- postmodern composer

Revision notes on postmodern composer Steve Reich

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Reich is an American composer most famous in the 1960s and 70s for his bizarre new approach to music, phasing.

His work is usually described as repetetive yet experimental and groundbreaking in terms of originality and music philosphy; the question of what seperates music from everyday sounds.

Reich has worked with various styles and methods of music from classical based phrases to pedestrianised sounds and rhythms.

Reich is often described as a Minimalist composer for his use of repetetive musical phrases, phasing techniques and simple harmonic structures.

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'Piano Phase' and 'Violin Phase'

These two compositions are very similar in style, structure and harmony. Phasing basically means that two identical phrases of music are played simultaneously with one slightly faster than the other so they will continuosly go in and out of phase with each other, revealing a range of different musical patterns that are the result of this effect.

'Piano Phase' and 'Violin Phase' both usea repeated sequence of 10 or 12 notes (V 10) (P 12) using minor harmonies that will later develop into different musical harmonies.

Using notes from a particular scale means that phasing the two lines will eventually lead to disonant (notes that clash) harmony developing within new musical patterns.

Ironically, both pieces are very simple in structure and harmony, but in order to perform these pieces live, as Reich intended, it is incredibly difficult for two performers to maintain a constant tempo of playing with the constant phasing of the two lines.

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'Pendulum Music'

This piece has often been described as an attempt by Reich to question what makes music a recognised piece of, well, music.

The piece has no notation or structure but is determined entirely by the process undertaken to create the 'music', if you choose to accept it as music.

The process for creating this piece is swinging several microphones over an amplifier, thus causing feedback to occur whenever the head of a microphone swings directly over the amplifier.

Variations from different performances of 'Pendulum Music' will obviously give different results, for example, how many microphones are used in the piece or how far you choose to swing them over the amplifier.

Despite having no harmonic structure, principal or method, 'Pendulum Music' does sound extremely disonant and has been described by some critics as Reich's attempt to parody atonal music, such as serialmism, that was seen as an elitist movement in the early 20th century.

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'It's Gonna Rain'

Like 'Pendulum Music', this has been seen as a revolutionary piece of 'music' for the same reasons: it is experimental, uses no notation, depends on a process and seems to have no musical merit whatsoever. These two pieces are usually described as a musical reaction against the elitist movement in an attempt to make non-popular music more accessible and understandable to general audiences.

'It's Gonna Rain' is another phasing piece, but rather than a performance by two experienced musicians, the piece is a pre-recorded extract of a speech (the words 'it's gonna rain') that is played twice to create a phasing effect.

Having no clear musical merit (harmony, instrumentation or rhythm) many questions have been asked as to how far this can be considered as 'music'.

Nevertheless, the piece is widely accepted as a revolutionary development within the modern minimalist movement for its experimental process, unclear structure and the defiance of musical convention.

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Steve Reich's relevance to the Postmodern movement

Antihierachal performance structure: both performers of 'Piano/ Violin Phase' are equally important in creating a convincing phasing performance.

Eclecticism: 'Violin/ Piano Phase' use conventional classical instruments in an unconventional modern way.

Fragmented: None of Reich's pieces follow a set structure and developments within each piece are varied and random from the original phrase.

Intertextuality: 'It's Gonna Rain' uses an extract from a speech made by a New York street performer.

Parody: 'Pendulum Music' has been described as a parody of elitist serialist music.

Irony: despite a very simple structure and harmony, 'Piano/ Violin Phase' is very complex to perform live and can only really be performed by experienced musicians.

Risk: the experimental styles of 'Pendulum Music' and 'It's Gonna Rain' questions the conventions of music.

Audience as consumer: it is possible to interpret the musical patterns heard in 'Piano/ Violin Phase' in many different ways.

Rework: 'Piano/ Violin Phase' reworks the instrumentation and harmony of classical music to create a modern phasing piece.

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