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Seminal writings about music, pt. 1: Reich, Music as a Gradual Process

Writing about music is hard. It is, as someone famously said, like dancing about architecture, or, as the New Republic published in 1918:

Strictly considered, writing about music is as illogical as singing about economics. All the other arts can be talked about in the terms of ordinary life and experience. A poem, a statue, a painting or a play is a representation of somebody or something, and can be measurably described (the purely aesthetic values aside) by describing what it represents.

If words could produce the effect that music does, if we could express what music allows us to express using text or speech or image instead, we probably would. Music is difficult and complex and abstract and temporal so you have to really pay attention and listen actively and lots of stuff that it's frankly easier to get people to do using words or images but those things can't do what music does, so we music instead despite those rather distinct properties.

But musicing (listening, playing, etc.) is so great and music so meaningful, that we then want to talk about it. We need to talk about it, to help conceptualize and understand it, to describe and share it, or to teach it, and so forth. So we face the challenge of using words to discuss and describe ideas and expressive impulses and feelings that are musical but need to be translated to discrete conceptual chunks of meaning called words.

Some people can do this beautifully and excitingly. Some have done it so lucidly that an idea or observation became seminal, strongly influencing later musical developments by clearly expressing and/or advocating for a set of ideas or values. These writings about music are important, not just because they are influential but because they also serve to our present as a kind of Rosetta stone, giving insight into entire bodies of musical works, styles, movements, and so on.

This post is the first of several highlighting seminal writings about music, with some discussion and contextualization to accompany each.  I'll be sprinkling these entries in the blog for the next few weeks at least, and wanted to start with my personal favorite, Music as a Gradual Process, by Steve Reich (1968). 

Famous as one of the founding four of musical minimalism, Reich is undeniably a significant composer. In this (appropriately) pithy essay, he clearly articulates the basic concepts in play with minimalist composition of musical works. We'll examine minimalism more closely in an upcoming episode of the podcast, including its vast contemporary influence, but the simple ideas articulated in Reich's essay so perfectly capture the basic essence of musical minimalism that it's frankly astonishing--yes, astonishing--that ideas so simple can be so expressively and experientially powerful (hence the 'vast contemporary influence' part, a claim we will definitely demonstrate in the podcast episode).

For instance, from the essay:

I am interested in perceptible processes. I want to be able to hear the process happening throughout the sounding music.

To facilitate closely detailed listening a musical process should happen extremely gradually.

Performing and listening to a gradual musical process resembles:

pulling back a swing, releasing it, and observing it gradually come to rest;
turning over an hour glass and watching the sand slowly run through the bottom;
placing your feet in the sand by the ocean's edge and watching, feeling, and listening to the waves gradually bury them.

This is a truly revolutionary point of view, considering that, in 1968, the dominant musical dogma was in large part about complexity and obscurity: complexity of material and obscurity of compositional processes--that is, processes (for example, a tone row) that are not perceptible to listeners. For Reich, this was a futile and fruitless practice:

The use of hidden structural devices in music never appealed to me. Even when all the cards are on the table and everyone hears what is gradually happening in a musical process, there are still enough mysteries to satisfy all.

It's a powerful creative statement, and essential reading for anyone seeking to understand musical minimalism. You can read the essay here.