Steve Reich and a direct impact of technological/artistic innovation on acoustic musical performance.

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Earlier, Craig posted about Dawn of MIDI, a wonderful Jazz trio that performs music based on generative digital compositions. The comments in class about this group focused on the ability for computer based art to make people realize what humans are actually capable of, thus advancing analog arts. I think a shining example of this type of influence happened in the work of american minimalist composer Steve Reich.


Steve Reich took tape loop composition to a new level with his piece “Come out, for tape.” The piece used a single audio loop of Daniel Hamm speaking about his experience of being unjustly beaten by police during the Harlem riots of 1964. A short and emotionally charged section of the interview is looped on 8 tape machines, aligned and calibrated specifically so they would go out of time with each other very slowly. As the 8 versions of the words go out of time intricate and musical rhythms emerge. The meaning of the words dissolve into a rhythmic texture. Though one could say meaning dissolves, for me meaning becomes feeling as I become entranced in the rhythms. Here is a good description of the piece by Jeremy Grimshaw.

This became one of Steve Reich’s early “phase” pieces, called that because the tape loops go slowly out of phase with each other creating the evolution and forward motion of the piece. After working with this technology for some time Steve Reich started to wonder if humans could perform this type of piece by hand, without technology. This train of thought was explored with a few pieces, first by having performers offset performances by metric units(8th notes or 16th notes).

Clapping music is a great example of this: 


The score to the piece seems simple, but that is deceiving! It requires great skill and focus to perform.

This is a type of “discrete” or stepped phase change with the performers dropping a single 8th note with each loop (actually the second performer is given some freedom with how many loops to perform before moving on).

While the discrete phase change was interesting, the most interesting part of “Come out, for tape” is the continuous phase change caused by the tape machines being ever-so-slightly out of time with each other. Steve’s question became: Can humans perform continuous phase change?

His piece “Piano Phase” is proof that we can.
Here is some info on the piece including a video, a picture of the score, and a description of the performance.

In this piece, simple repeating melodic patterns are played on two pianos. One performer is instructed to slow down slightly, allowing the two pianos to go out of phase. the second performer slows down until new metric structures form between the pianos. Every time I hear this I am amazed by the performance, the beauty, and the complexity that forms out of such a refined idea.

This evolution from technological to human performance shows that experience with technology can reveal hitherto unknown human capabilities.
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8 Responses to “Steve Reich and a direct impact of technological/artistic innovation on acoustic musical performance.”

  1. Augmentationist Interanational Says:

    Here is the Radiolab podcast about Dawn of Midi.

  2. loudonstearns Says:

    Steve Reich also studied african rhythmic music heavily.

    • Danilo Chaves Says:

      You might want to check this book out. Grammani was one of the masters of polyrhythmic studies in the 80s in Brazil. He was a music teacher in many colleges there. The book is in portuguese but it’s very descriptive. The method is pretty old but its one of the most complete books in polyrhythmic studies IMHO. I related much of reich’s compositions with what I’ve seen in the book. Very interesting.

      • loudonstearns Says:

        Thanks for the download, very interesting. I have seen numerous rhythmic”compendiums” like this and I have build some similar harmonic compendiums. The Berklee school was originally the “schillinger school” and that his system is very similar to what you have posted here. I love this aspect of musical pedagogy. Because music has developed a contained system of notes and rhythms it has become possible to create mathematical systems that describe the whole system. I find it reassuring that all rhythm can be organized, and that all harmony can be organized. I struggle with “new media” because there isn’t a clear way to organize and present the information. I think emotion is one major common ground between all these art forms, and possibly organizing and structuring human emotion, like Grammani did here with rhythm, would be a useful pursuit and provide a helpful tool for us. Russell’s Circumplex model of Affect does just this! I think it is an important tool for New Media, as systems of rhythms and harmony are important tools for musical composers and improvisers.

    • Danilo Chaves Says:

      btw, this is just the first part of the book. It goes waaay more complex than that. But the main goal in the exercises is to achieve rhythmic independence when clapping, singing and stomping

  3. loudonstearns Says:

    In the Radiolab interview the artist Aphex Twin was mentioned. His piece “Flim” as performed by the Jazz trio The Bad Plus, is another great example of technological music being performed by humans.

    I don’t think Dawn of MIDI is original at all. Steve Reich’s piece Music for 18 Musicians was done years earlier(1978) and is SO similar. I think we are seeing a return to american minimalism here, not a new type of music. I am actually kind of insulted that Steve Reich was not mentioned as an influence or a lineage in this music.

    The way they describe the pieces in the interview is exactly how people responded to Music for 18 Musicians. You could put Music for 18 Musicians behind this an most of the comments would be appropriate.

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