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Reich Electric Counterpoint Analysis Essay

Why? Because Reich loves the notion of “mystery” in art, but not as something hidden away. He wants it to be right there, on the surface. Thus his lifelong fondness for dancing patterns which aren’t as simple and hard-edged as they appear. They seem to change their shape in one’s ear, like that well-known psychologist’s drawing which can look like a duck or a rabbit, depending on how you look at it. By subtly layering one pattern above another, Reich found he could magnify that effect, adding his own “mystery” to the one already there.

That was his own self-chosen project. But then, over the following decades, something wonderful and unexpected happened. The repeating patterns and the hammered piano and marimba sounds remained as insistent as ever, but because he now softened them with familiar things like melody and harmonic progressions, Reich’s own kind of “mystery” joined hands with the mysteries classical music had always had.

For example, Reich often organises his layers of repeating patterns so that you’re uncertain which one is “tune” and which “accompaniment”. This is exactly the same game that Joseph Haydn played in his string quartets two centuries previously. Without knowing it, Reich has reinvented familiar aspects of classical music, while appearing to do something new. As Arnold Schoenberg (another conservative who looked like a radical) put it: “On revient toujours” — one keeps returning (to the old ways).


This piece dates from 1987. It was written for the virtuoso jazz guitarist Pat Metheny, though it’s played on our Spotify recording with delicious louche ease by Swedish guitarist Mats Bergstrom. Playing the piece is a big undertaking, as the soloist has to record up to 10 guitar and two bass guitar parts in advance, and then play along with those parts in concert.

00.00 This third movement begins with four guitars entering one after another, each imitating the one before exactly. This is an ancient technique known as canon — another example of Reich reinventing something familiar.

00.43 The bass guitar enters tentatively with a truncated pattern, which builds up step-by-step until at 00.58 we hear it complete. From then on it repeats continually.

1.06 The incessant sound of plucking is softened by a repeated chordal strum. This accretes echoes of itself, until we have a three-part strumming canon.

2.17 Just when the ear is starting to tire of that harmony, Reich shifts to a new one. But notice how everything else stays the same. The harmony shifts back and forth between these two poles, beginning at 2.32.

3.20 The bass guitars and strumming fade out, leaving a taut pattern floating ever higher, until it abruptly cuts off.


Sextet, fifth movement

The brightly innocent guitar sound of Electric Counterpoint is unusual. Far more typical of Reich is the darker harmonic colour and hammered marimba, vibraphone and piano sound of this Sextet, which he composed three years earlier. Notice how Reich introduces the vibraphone in 00.28 with a fragmentary phrase which builds gradually to something continuous, a favourite technique of his known as “gap fill”. The way Reich delays the entry of the bass until 1.05 is reminiscent of the piece you’ve just heard, but the mood is utterly different.


Variations for Vibes, Pianos and Strings, second movement

Steve Reich’s deep affinities with the past go beyond music. He has a profoundly religious temperament, which in the 1970s led him to re-engage with his ancestral Jewish faith (he expresses this with typical modesty by wearing a baseball cap, rather than a yarmulke). As with Stravinsky, Reich’s religious temperament colours even pieces that aren’t overtly religious — like this one. The string cantilena in the slow movement sounds to me like voices raised in prayer, as if “waiting patiently for the Lord”. The change of harmony at 1.40 is one of my favourite moments in Reich.


Let the Dream Fall Back, from Daniel Variations

This piece is more overtly religious, in the sense that it includes sung texts from the Book of Daniel. “Daniel” also refers to Daniel Pearl, the Jewish-American journalist kidnapped and murdered by Islamic extremists in Pakistan in 2002.

In this third movement the words are “Let the dream fall back upon the dreaded”. This is a somewhat obscure rendering of the response of the biblical Daniel to Nebuchadnezzar, when the king tells him of his terrifying dream. In the biblical version, Daniel’s response is: “My lord, may the dream be for your enemies and its interpretation for your foes.”

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Steve Reich

Steve Reich was born in 1936. His compositions are influenced by non-Western traditions. He studied African drumming, with its complex counterpoint, and Balinese gamelan music, with its complex layering and fast interlocking patterns. His well-known pieces include Clapping Music, Different Trains and Music for Pieces of Wood.

Electric Counterpoint was composed in 1987. It was commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy of Music for the jazz guitarist Pat Metheny. Counterpoint refers to a texture where two or more melodic lines are combined. It is scored for solo guitar (acoustic or electric), 12 guitars and two bass guitars. The soloist plays live against a pre-recorded backing. Alternatively it can be performed completely live by the whole ensemble of 15 players

Electric Counterpoint is in three movements, fast-slow-fast.

Movement III has a time signature of 3/2 (three beats in a bar, each equal to a minim). A 3/2 bar has a total of 12 quavers or twelve-pulse units. African rhythms are often organised into twelve-pulse units. The pattern will not just be divided into three lots of four, but will also be divided into other groups, such as four lots of three. Steve Reich uses this idea throughout the movement, moving the accents and sometimes changing the time signature from 3/2 to 12/8.

12 quaver rhythms

Look at some of the ways the beats can be divided up and see where the accents come.

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