The Listening Room: Reich’s The Desert Music
29 Nov 2011
Inside the Classics

This is the second of two posts kicking off the musical conversation we’re calling The Listening Room. If this is the first you’ve heard of it, click here to get caught up. Yesterday, Judd and I discussed the first work on this month’s featured album, Steve Reich’s 1981 masterpiece, Tehillim. Today’s post covers the other work on the album, Reich’s setting of poems by William Carlos Williams, titled The Desert Music. Add your own thoughts in the comments, and we’ll keep the conversation going for as long as there’s interest…

Sam: The Desert Music is also scored for voices and small orchestra, but it couldn’t be more different from Tehillim. Talk a little bit about Reich’s use of “phasing,” a technique he devised in which the same rhythmic or melodic figure is played by multiple musicians ever so slightly out of sync with each other.

Judd: Phasing is simple — take two recordings, and start them at the same time. Then speed one up slightly so that it begins to sound weirdly chorused/distorted, then gradually becomes discernible as an echo of the other. That’s phasing. Where it gets particularly interesting is where you phase musical elements that are able to take on different meanings when they are shifted in terms of their rhythmic relationship. If you take two recordings of Row Row Row Your Boat, and phase them, stopping the speeding-up each time the rhythms line up again, you’ll get a nice effect because Row Row Row Your Boat is a round, meaning that the harmonies line up with each other at regular intervals in the song. If you do the same thing with The Rite of Spring it might be interesting, but it’ll be cacophonously so.

What Reich winds up doing is doing this live, with different players playing the same instrument (type), so that you get this crazy mental effect of not being sure what is producing the sound. Your brain can also parse the melodic fragments he’s using quite easily, and you get very familiar with them, so it’s a way of having things remain the same, and familiar, while also changing.

In The Desert Music he doesn’t do the kind of gradual phasing that you hear in earlier works, but the interlocking patterns will often change in relation to one another in ways that come out of the earlier phase works.

Sam: The texts for The Desert Music are from poems by William Carlos Williams, who seems to be a very popular muse for composers. What do you think it is about his poetry that speaks to composers of our era?

Judd: He’s just an incredible poet. And he writes in a way that preserves the cadence of speech, which, for a certain type of composer, is very useful. The centerpiece of The Desert Music is the section taken from “The Orchestra”, with this famous passage:

Say to them: Man has survived hitherto because he was too ignorant to know how to realize his wishes. Now that he can realize them, he must either change them or perish.

That poem is really remarkable, and it’s equally remarkable that Reich, when commissioned by the Brooklyn Philharmonic to write a quasi-orchestral work, immediately went to a poem that seems to draw a parallel between the way an orchestra works together, and works with an audience, to the way that human society works together. (side note: I’ve never seen anyone mention this, but Williams was almost surely quoting Bertrand Russell there, from the end of an essay he wrote for the Guardian in 1952, two years before The Desert Music and Other Poems was published. It’s an incredible tribute, the Moses-like command to “say to them”, with Russell as the holy prophet. I don’t know if Reich was aware of that allusion when he set the poem but it makes everything even more interconnected.)

Sam: Reich gives very specific tempo instructions for each movement of The Desert Music, and I’ve even read that the different movements have tempo relationships, a specific number of beats per minute that line up in a 3:2 ratio. Obviously, rhythm and tempo are critical elements of Reich’s music, but honestly, would it really make any difference to the listener if a performance of this piece didn’t follow Reich’s exact tempos?

Judd: Music lives in the body. Would it make a difference if two notes were out of tune? The answer is yes, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. Sometimes things being out of tune, or of different timbres and with different overtones, can be a good thing. I think you can feel when tempo relationships exist across different spaces of music — you at least feel the relative shift, if not the strict relationships — but it could well be that things move better when certain sections are a little faster or slower than Reich intended. I have to make enough of these decisions in my own music; I’m not going to try to pick apart Reich’s masterworks that way.

Sam: Fair enough. Let’s shift gears a bit – we haven’t talked much about the singing on this album yet. The vocal lines in both pieces are performed entirely without vibrato, which is a very unique sound, and one we seem to be hearing more and more of today. Is this just a stylistic preference, is it related to the rise of amplified performance, or is there a deeper reason that many composers are moving away from traditional operatic styles of singing?

Judd: Actually, you know what’s really a unique sound? Western operatic singing! It’s totally crazy that this is the basis for what’s expected in contemporary music practice, but again, you only know where you’re coming from, not where things are going.

Straight-tone singing makes a lot of sense in this vocal writing, which isn’t about the small inflections that might happen in a typical operatic aria, but is either about quickly-moving repeated notes (at the beginning and the end of the piece), or about long tones, held over moving lines. The former would be impossible with vibrato and the latter would be tricky. Plus, the vocal lines would have a hard time blending with the clarinets, vibes, and harmonics. The vocals are themselves also usually blending into a big chord that is held for a while, and not only does that sound really outstandingly amazing in straight-tone singing, but it might sound strange with vibrato.

That said, I don’t know that it would necessarily be “bad” to sing with more vibrato here, it just would certainly be against Reich’s intent.

One really cool thing about this recording is how the instrumental players really attack the lines at times — it’s not meant to be this cold, neutral, austere presentation. Listen to the last movement of The Desert Music, it’s like this orgy of wild violin lines, big crescendi, and even these awesome vocal slides that are very “pop” and totally wonderful when they occasionally happen.

This would probably be a good time to note that this recording is really, really good. I have a close personal relationship with the premiere recordings of both these pieces (I still remember hearing the end of The Desert Music on WNYC one night when I was home from college, the precise moment that I became a Steve Reich fan), but this recording is so meticulous and really elevates the pieces to new heights.

Sam: One of the hardest things for listeners who shy away from “new music” tends to be the lack of traditional Germanic melodic forms, and I never know quite what to say when someone claims that a work by a living composer has “no melody.” I hear melodic fragments all over Reich’s work, but it’s true that it’s very different from listening to something written in sonata form. I enjoy Beethoven, and I enjoy Reich, but I almost feel like I have to enjoy them with different parts of my brain. Is that true for you as well?

Judd: I think part of what’s happening here is that, to a lot of people, “melody” means “diatonic melody”. [ALERT: THIS WILL BE NERDY AND MAY MAKE NO SENSE.] There’s a really big difference between even triadic, relatively “consonant” harmonic writing, such as Reich’s or mine, that never (Reich) or rarely (Greenstein) uses tonic-dominant relationships — which, without getting into it, is the backbone of Western harmony from around 1500 to 1910.

Reich and I both move around much more by seconds and thirds — necessary when you’re holding a bunch of common notes in a pattern — and this means that there are going to be different kinds of melodies that emerge. My melodic writing, to my own ear, feels derived almost from plainchant. But all modal music has something of that quality — look at, say, Mongo Santamaria’s Afro Blue, made famous by John Coltrane. You could convincingly use that as an isorhythm in a motet, right? Maybe? Am I stretching things? It’s close, in any case.

But none of this has much to do with the kind of melodic writing that you get when there’s a big V-I move articulating the harmonic change. (Ed. note: V-I is the notation for music moving from a dominant chord back to the main tonic chord. More simply, it’s what your average, uncomplicated ending sounds like in everything from Tchaikovsky symphonies to pop songs.) It’s not better or worse, it’s just a different feeling. But the chord changes that happen in Reich are some of my favorites ever, and I have stolen them completely and thoroughly in my own writing.

So there’s Judd’s take on this remarkable CD from Alarm Will Sound and Ossia. What’s yours? Chime in down in the comments, and join us in January for the next installment of The Listening Room…

<February 2020>

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