December 8, 2001
Theory in Music
Comparative Analysis: Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians and Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume II.
There are some interesting parallels in these two seminal works of “minimalist” music. The former is a sprawling one hour composition for ensemble made up of 14 connecting sections in the Nonesuch 1998 recording, the version which I will be examining (Note: the 1976 ECM original is split into 12 sections). The latter piece is a massive double album of instrumental electronic music containing over 20 unique works. Both composers implement a repetitious approach in their compositions. The music slowly and subtly builds to new twists and turns over the course of several minutes, an approach that some musicologists have labeled “systems music” (Sutherland). There is at all times an abundance of minute detail to be either blocked out or magnified at the listener‘s discretion. The impressions SAW2 and Music for 18 Musicians make run the gamut from calming, to captivating, to maddening. This is not music meant for everyone; some people grasp it and some do not. The following is a deconstructive analysis of exemplary works of two of the most important composers of the 20th and 21st centuries.
As a short introduction to the unacquainted, Aphex Twin is the cult celebrity, composer, and musician Richard D. James. His music can only truly be described as instrumental and electronically oriented, though most people who have heard it would also throw in “bizarre“ or “deranged.” James currently records for both the world renown Warp Records and his own Rephlex Records. Since the early nineties, he has released dozens of albums, EP’s, and singles at an incredibly prolific rate, beginning with his compilation Selected Ambient Works 85-92. This album is made up of early works he composed beginning at age 14. His first few albums were performed on customized synthesizers, drum machines, and sample sequencers, but his later works, perhaps beginning with SAW2 (1994) but doubtlessly implemented on his heralded Richard D. James Album (1996), have been written and performed mostly or entirely on computers. On his latest, DrukQs (2001), several short interlude pieces are performed on prepared piano. His style varies greatly between releases, and often between tracks on the same release. Albums preceding SAW2 have been either ambient or, conversely, acid/house; in recent years he has made innovative contributions to the worlds of drum ’n’ bass (or IDM: “Intelligent Dance Music“), techno, industrial, and even classical. His unique techniques have prompted journalists to proclaim him as “the Mozart of electronica,” although James rejects this because his musical approach is nothing like that of Mozart. The influences the enigmatic musician has cited from outside of his late 20th Century peers include Karlheinz Stockhausen, Philip Glass (who he has worked with), and Erik Satie. He does not much care for Reich or John Cage. The common elements of James’s diverse musical catalogue are his unyielding sense of originality and classically trained technical proficiency. On a personal note, SAW2 is one of my very favorite albums and, perhaps due to its sheer overwhelming size (153 minutes), it has never grown stale.
The most exciting musical idea James make use of on SAW2 is Steve Reich in nature: phasing. The majority of the tracks on SAW2 utilize a disorienting style of texturing that draws the listener into a dizzy or serene state. With few exceptions, the two dozen pieces on SAW2 are without true percussion; on these tracks, rhythm is created through melodic phasing. Several tracks expertly employ muted African style drumming that sustains the hypnotic “melody” lines like a pulse. This is an idea taken directly from Reich’s percussion on Music for 18 Musicians, especially on the first and last pieces: “Pulses“ and “Pulses II” (Schwarz). The organic rhythm found on Music for 18 Musicians is the product of plunking percussive instruments, but it is the striking interplay between strings, clarinets, voices, and pianos that chiefly maintain the entrancing tempo.
There are still more correlations between the two works. Both composers utilize new tonality: the return to tonal harmony, but with non-traditional harmonic progressions. James’s compositions are slightly sparser than Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians. With fewer instruments employed there are less opportunities for divergence from the main theme. This is not to say that the pieces do not develop; each and every one does. They just do not change as quickly as the motifs in Music for 18 Musicians. The most obvious commonality between the Reich and James pieces is stylistic minimalism. Though there are eighteen musicians performing the Reich piece, they all work to create an entrancing, repetitive rhythm; they do not provide countermelody to each other, but merely provide call-and-response rhythmic structure and support. Many of the instruments performed by James (Note: each musical voice is pre-recorded or programmed and then tracked together) and conducted by Reich are very subtle; one must listen intently to hear the backing parts. For Reich this includes the clobbering of piano keys and the low pitched drudging of the strings; for James they are typically synthesizer drones and non-harmonic sounds. Both composers utilize complex, under-appreciated, seldom employed concepts to create music that is new and exciting.
Because Music for 18 Musicians, unlike the Aphex Twin album, is one full piece, it should be studied as such. Reich’s work will be analyzed by topic and the tracks from SAW2 will be assessed on an individual level. Each element of Music for 18 Musicians evaluated below is chosen for its importance in SAW2 as well.
Development in Music for 18 Musicians is different in many ways from SAW2. Whereas over half of the pieces that make up SAW2 significantly progress in melody and rhythm, Music for 18 Musicians functions with only a vague notion of directionality, if one true direction exists at all. The sections of this piece do not climax but rather flow into each other. There is never a sense of resolution. There are at least two players for each instrument, and all eighteen musicians work diligently to perform or compliment a central rhythm (Note: there is no melodic exploration in this piece). The work begins and ends with pulses of eleven chords that form the structure of the entire piece (Arnold). The 18 musicians play these eleven chords, shifting their phase by either performing the exact same notes a certain interval apart or cooperating to meticulously finish a musical phrase. Because the piece is focused on this single musical idea, the musicians all work together in one massive concerted effort. Different instruments in each section provide homophonic backing for the focal instrument of each particular section. This is sonic variety but not development in the traditional sense. The interplay within the large ensemble is very sonically impressive nonetheless.
The instrumentalists alter the chords to varying degrees, changing pitch, tempo, and duration of sound. Is this melodic development? No, because this is done without a clear central vision. The chord changes are not improvised, but the anticipatory sense they create is false in that no authentic chords are ever introduced in the piece. The music in this sixty-minute work never veers far from the theme established in “Pulses.” The parts in the sections that sound different from previous configurations of the theme are merely the results of pitch and tempo alteration, as well as the interchange of musical instruments. The material is not new.
If one does believe development occurs in this piece then he or she must admit that the development is circular. This concept is true in two senses: instrumentation and melody. The eleven chords appear at least every few minutes in their original tempo and pitch. In “Pulses,” the piano oscillates between two notes on the keyboard. The instrument has a solo for the first seventeen seconds of the piece before it is backed by the subtle sound of a violin. At the twenty-two second mark, a cello and two clarinets quiver together in close harmony. The piano never changes its chord structure, pitch, or even volume; it remains in the background as new instruments are introduced. The same notes can be heard throughout the first couple sections as instruments that had become focal points drop out. The piano riff makes a grand reappearance in “Section V” after being absent for a few minutes.
This type of subtle, repetitive instrumentation is heard throughout. Mallet instruments, including the piano, pound out steady percussion for the human voices, clarinets, violin, and cello. Assessing the individual percussion instruments requires much concentration, however, as these instruments seem to be in different time signatures than one another. The performer or performers with the rhythm’s corresponding melody must listen closely to not lose the off-kilter beat.
The marimbas, one of the main ingredients in the piece’s rhythm, provide a compelling backdrop. The individual beats of the marimbas often fill in the space between notes in the phrase played by the focal instruments. Sometimes the marimba’s beat completes the musical idea, comparable to the programmed drum kicks on James‘s “1:8.” The marimbas are introduced toward the end of “Pulses,” and in “Section I” and “Section II” they provide a static backdrop. However, beginning with “Section IIIA” the rhythm of the marimbas becomes dynamic, morphing to coincide with the changes in instrumentation. In addition, the varying meter of the marimbas, as well as the xylophones, corresponds with pitch and duration changes in the performance of the eleven chords. The rhythm section can be seen as a flowing river rather than a pond through which the other instruments can wade.
In addition to the traditional rhythm provided by the percussion, a stirring, internal rhythm is created by the phasing of this piece. As discussed previously, each instrument is at least doubled. The phasing that the duplicate instruments make together and the interplay between different instruments playing the same chords at different starting points draws the listener inward. This is especially effective with the impossible sounding Doppler effects of the cello. The multiple marimbas and xylophones sound comparably practical, but their phasing, the result of their intricacy and impeccably timed execution, are impressive nonetheless.
The interplay between pianos in “Section V” deserves the keen focus of classically trained ears, which I unfortunately do not have. The most impressive phasing of this piece is achieved by at least four pianos working in concert. This smooth, fluttering, cyclical riff emerges with eighth- and sixteenth notes from the quivering tenor of the cello and clarinets. All other instruments drop out to give due focus to this impressive piano showcase. While one piano oscillates between the two highest pitched ivory keys of the keyboard, the other pianos plunk down a segment of the eleven chords in succession. Notes are struck before the previous piano player even has the chance to lift his finger from the key. This is organic phasing at its most beautiful. Stereophonic layering adds to the circular feel of this rhythm. As the piece progresses, one piano in the assembly line augments his second to last note, causing a large but pleasant disturbance in the melody. The other pianists follow suit and soon two, three, and four musicians are playing the chords with raised intervals. This tricks the ear into thinking there is a new melody being played when in fact there is not.
Logically, with 18 musicians utilized, the instrumentation in Reich’s composition is rather interesting. Besides the alternate uses for piano, xylophone, and marimba mentioned before, the strings and the musicians’ voices serve more than one function. Whereas the alto voices are employed as vibrating, phase-shifting treble instruments in “Section VI” and “Section VII,” they are also used to accent important chords with their unique timbre. It is easy to forget they are human voices as they weave themselves between the poignant xylophones and marimbas in “Section II.” The note they highlight lends one to believe that this point is the beginning of the measure, but the problem is, once again, that there are usually two or more conflicting time signatures.
The strings section is given surprisingly little room for “development” in this piece. They chiefly bicker back and forth in the background. In Music for 18 Musicians, the cello, usually in alliance with the clarinets, is most often employed as a drone instrument. Little variety is exhibited; usually the pitch shifts down only one step as it quivers back and forth like the moving finger or watch of a hypnotist. In “Section IIIB,” however, the cello’s bass line is slightly more sophisticated. The tempo and duration of the notes it plays are actually dissonant in relationship with the marimbas, xylophones, and high-pitched clarinets layered over top of it. The effect is subtle but exciting when noticed. The violin in “Section IV” echoes the short-winded bass line played by the cello in the previous section. The violin is electrifying in “Section IIIA” as well. This is the only moment in Music for 18 Musicians where it carries the melody. Pleasingly, it not only performs the melody but it modulates it under full spotlight. With the urging of the pitch-shifting xylophone, the pitch of each note played by the violin is raised and the tempo becomes faster and more insistent. This is, with due appreciation for the other sections, the highlight of the piece.
Written about 25 years after Music for 18 Musicians, Selected Ambient Works Volume II upon first listen bears little sonic similarity. It is, after all, electronic and Reich’s work is undeniably organic. But then one must consider that this album really sounds like nothing else in any genre. James’s compositional techniques in SAW2, when under close scrutiny, have more in common with Reich’s approach than that of anyone else. There are three general varieties of hypnotic music on SAW2: dizzying ambient techno that most overtly utilizes the phasing technique; lulling mood pieces that transcend time; and extended, unmelodic, often annoying drones. The feel of the album is uncompromisingly ethereal. While the first disc has the most stylistic similarities to Reich, the second disc is far less cohesive: this is where most of the drumbeats and drones are. While the unusual instrumentation and chord changes are unsettling when given proper focus, they are soothing on the surface level. The bulk of this album is analogous to drinking iced tea: cool and refreshing. And while the instruments are computer processed, they give off a very natural flavor. The repetitive melodic phrases are usually simple, at times trite, but the music is captivating because of the melody lines’ timbres (Reynolds), unexpected chord changes, and demented juxtapositions with other voices. Serenity is the main emotion of this minimalist work. However, this feeling is quickly lost when the listener snaps out of his or her cathartic entrancement and realizes the bizarreness of the music. A notorious joker and cynic, this is probably what James intended: an induced false sense of calmness that at the musician’s whim can be transformed into complete discomfort and disillusion.
Because the album contains no official track titles, I will distinguish each piece by its disc and track numbers (Note: I will be referring to the American CD distributed by Sire Records, which has one less track than the Warp UK CD and two less tracks than the triple album set on vinyl). The system will be disc #: track #, for example “2:12.”
SAW2 announces itself with the tensive “1:1,“ one of the most alien sounding pieces on the album. This piece is well representative of SAW2’s core elements: phasing, minimalism, repetition, and the manipulation of sampled human voice. Interestingly, all
of these elements can be heard in Steve Reich’s 1980 piece “Come Out” which is over ten minutes of sampled and re-sampled speech. The focal instrument in “1:1” is a sampled or synthesized alto voice. This presumably female voice neither sings nor speaks words; the spoken syllable “dät” is played and replayed via cyclic phasing. James’s mode of phasing on SAW2 is different from Reich’s: it is conceivably flawless because it is the result of a combination of electronic delay and reverberation that can be applied to any instrument run through certain software. Throughout “1:1“ the voice is put through what a decade or two earlier would have been referred to as “tape effects;“ the syllable is cut into segments, its pitch is shifted up and down, the duration of its echo is shortened and lengthened, and it gradually moves in and out of phase with its own rhythm. From the beginning, the voice sounds far from human, like the vocalists in “Segment II.”
The voice is backed by what is termed in electronic music “synth washes:” whole note or longer atonal drone synthesizer notes. The chords are dissonant so it is difficult to decipher exactly what notes are being played. About two minutes into the piece, a synthesized muted piano enters, going through its own phasing for the remainder of the track. It is the same few notes played every few seconds, until the synth washes disappear for a brief moment and the melody descends. The voice disappears in the closing two minutes, and the synth washes disappear and reappear, granting solos to the reverb- and delay-soaked muted piano. This is akin to the constantly emerging and disappearing instruments in the Reich piece. The style of “1:1” is repeated on “1:10” and “2:5” on SAW2.
In “1:2” the synthesizer notes resonate in each ear, like the back and forth stereo effects found in Music for 18 Musicians. Two synthesizers with different timbres fight against each other four minutes into the piece. Each synthesizer is in its own key and time signature. Each instrument has its own phasing effects. It battles both itself and each other, sending the listener into a dizzying frenzy. There is no third instrument. The melody is “plunk-de-plunk” repeated with delay effects several times. This is more repetitive than most pieces on SAW2, though it does morph at one point into another idea for roughly a minute. “1:2” is one of the most maddening pieces on this collection.
The next piece, “1:3,” is the most inward and tender track on the album. This elegy is relentlessly melancholic, in adagio. The murky, woodwind-sounding bass line plays the same three ascending quarter-quarter-half and three descending quarter-quarter-whole notes throughout the piece. Each note sounds like it took gut retching effort to execute, like the words of a dying man. In the descending half of the phrase, the closing note resolves beautifully to the tonic in an emphasized authentic cadence. This repetition holds a static, heartbreaking rhythm for the other parts to play over.
The second voice to appear is the treble synthesizer. A computer reverb effect adds a melancholy echo to the melody it plays. The phrase is the melody of the first voice at a much higher pitch and with more distortion. Soon a cello-sounding part backs up the first synthesizer on the same phase. This collusion of instruments plods along for three minutes before being joined by a fourth, mid-range synthesizer after the listener has been lulled into a depressed state. The melodic phrase it plays is seemingly a half step higher, though it is difficult to decipher while mesmerized. While it does repeat the same phrase as the other instruments, its structure develops through the pitch of its notes, which continue to rise as the piece goes on. A fifth synthesizer briefly appears, also to perform high notes. All synthesizers are thickly coated with distortion and reverb effects that emphasize the gloomy mood. Though all tracks on SAW2 are stark, this is one of the few homophonic ambient pieces James chose to include on the album.
“1:6” bares the most melodic similarity to the eleven chords repeated throughout Music For 18 Musicians. The melodic intervals played on the first keyboard to appear in the piece are 1-3-1-3, 2-3-1, with D most likely the tonic. The melody is made up of eighth notes except for the tonal center: the fourth note is the tonic accent, an octave above the other third intervals. The final note in the melodic phrase is the tonic. The maddening timbre of this instrument is a highly distorted, reverberating wood piano, a cousin to the four real pianos used in the Reich piece.
In context with the rest “1:6,” the aforementioned melody is a simple but relentless loop that plays throughout the piece, and though the part is loud, it is there to provide sonic texturing for the other instruments. The unstopping melody is used to a near identical effect as the main theme repeated throughout Music for 18 Musicians. In addition, the synthesizer’s deranged reiteration and one-second-delay phasing set a hypnotic mood. Forty seconds into this eight and a half minute piece, a quiet, almost unnoticeable dissonant keyboard, roughly a half pitch step below the looped rhythm, plays dynamic, improvised backing melodies, as if to prove that this track is not as mindless and inhuman as it seems on the first listen. When given its due focus, it is conceivable to get lost in this piece for hours. A minute and a half into the piece, the most sonically interesting element is heard. Over the rolling rhythm of the original keyboard, a synthesized piano plays five ascending chords, takes a whole note rest, and then descends in pitch to play its tonic, followed by a non-harmonic suspension chord. This instrument disappears after playing for a minute or so, and returns nearly a minute later to play different notes. The new notes are more improvisational and the instrument takes a different time signature. Not wanting to bore the listener, it has a new job: spicing up the piece with unexpected configurations of notes. At the five-minute mark, it returns to its original melody for forty seconds. For thirty seconds it plays whole notes before returning again to the original melody. For the rest of the piece, the notes are played with a ringing staccato.
James’s implementation of subtle percussive noises in “1:6” is fascinating. Forty seconds into “1:6,“ muted sixteenth notes from a computerized bass drum hit like soft mallets in the left ear. They accent the final two notes of the looping melodic phrase for about twenty seconds before disappearing, only to reappear at random intervals in the piece. After a minute of delay-, reverb-, and distortion-saturated keyboard riffs, quick buzzes of electronic static are heard in the distant background. Their function is to emphasize certain notes in the melody. Another subtle percussive instrument makes an impression on “1:6:” sequenced DAT tape glitches skip to and fro quietly in the background for about thirty seconds before disappearing. They reemerge a minute later with the ascending-descending piano riff. The rest of the piece features more random near-silent percussive noises of the static or glitch variety.
To further analyze James’s use of percussion, one must look no further than “1:8.” James employs both polyphonic and polyrhythmic textures in this childlike piece. As heard in dozens of James’s works on this and other albums, childhood is an important musical theme. James likes to clash joyous melodies played on synthesizers with menacing percussion and sound effects. This is the case with “1:8.” The first ten seconds are a menacing tribal rhythm underscored by sinister, stereophonic synth washes. Then the washes totally disappear and the beat becomes compliment to a lyrical synthesizer, the treble. This instrument plays a quick, happy flute melody while an organ, the bass, plays a rolling countermelody. The delightful mood begins to wane a minute into the piece when a new percussive instrument enters the fray. This part sounds like a computer-processed sample of the clanking made by metal chain links. The mood is totally ruined when at 1:8 the sinister synth washes return like an evil clown to a circus. The remainder of the piece is a quadruple meter battle between the tribal drums, the chain links, the bass, and the treble. At 2:17 another keyboard briefly emerges with a quiet, building melody, and the treble plays 2-1-2, 2-1-2, 2-2-1, 2-1-2 intervals. The chain links seem the easiest to focus on in an effort to determine the time signature, but the polyrhythmic nature of the piece and the phasing of the links make this job impossible. What can be assessed is that the first beat of each measure played by the chain links is accented, as if to mock the listener trying to count the beat.
As stated previously, disc two of SAW2 is less cohesive and bears fewer similarities to Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians. “2:11,” for instance, is just a grating exercise in pitch blending that the composer intended as more of a joke than an interlude. This is clinched by the different samples of human laughter that appear throughout the track, seldom without their pitch, duration, and basic sonic structure intact. For these discrepancies, and because of concepts already discussed, fewer pieces on this half of the album will be analyzed.
“2:6” has a Middle Eastern sound to it. The keyboard mimics a mesmerizing snake charmer’s flute. Phasing in this piece makes melodic analysis more difficult than in any other, but its intervals make the piece sound like it is written in melodic minor key. This track features a synthesized ensemble of flute, marimba, timpani, and tambourine, all of which are phased roughly a dozen times through echo and reverberation. This is easily the most hypnotic moment of SAW2. It is impossible to determine what the originating melodies and rhythms are because of the intense phasing: the original performance disappears at some point after the first two echoing phases have come over top of it. This is even more extreme than Reich’s “Section V” where the pianos work to execute a single phrase.
“2:8” is a weighty piece similar to “1:3.” This piece, however, develops more. The instrumentation keeps a constant melancholic, lulling mood, but the listener is this time taken on a trip through the music, rather than induced into a stupor. All instruments on this track sound very murky; it is difficult to discern the foreground from the background. There is no percussion. The atonal backing instruments emulate clarinets and indistinct strings. The depressing focal melody is played on some muddling of different instruments that mimic no real instruments yet sound fully organic. The main phrase played by this instrument is a lovely and difficult sounding ascension of notes beginning with E-B-G. This piece is achingly beautiful in its low pitched instrumental timbre and elegiac chord progression. It sounds post-apocalyptic.
“2:12” sonically parallels “Section VI” and “Section VIII” on Music for 18 Musicians with its rapid muted drums. In the Reich piece, a xylophone signals cues for the slight changes in melody and structure. The phasing-induced, near-silent programmed percussion line accompanies and accents the beginning of each sinister whole note performed by James’s computerized orchestra. Within three minutes of “2:12,” the piece enters a state of cacophony that never once occurs in the mathematically perfected chaos of Music for 18 Musicians. SAW2 ends abruptly when the drums and half of the faux orchestra drop out, followed by the rest of the instruments, without returning to the tonic. An eccentric ending to an eccentric musical work. Music for 18 Musicians’s closing “Pulses II” is at least given a moment of interplay between just the xylophone and piano followed by a fade out effect. Does this make Reich more of a musician or James more of an artist?
This comparative analysis only begins to reveal the
brilliant underlying minutiae of so-called minimalist music. Each of these works deserves patience and
attention in order before comprehension of their genius is awarded to the
listener. Selected Ambient Works
Volume II and Music for 18 Musicians are deceptively configured, but
with the right approach this becomes not a hindrance but a virtue.
Arnold, Jacob. "20th-Century Avant-Garde." 2000.
Creative Music Co., Inc. Creative Music Online Dictionary of Musical Terms. 2000.
Reynolds, Simon. Review of Selected Ambient Works Volume II, Spin Magazine, 1994.
Schwarz, K. Robert. “Steve Reich: Music As a Gradual Process,” Perspectives on New
Music, xix (1980-81), 373-92; xx (1981-82) 225-86. Reprinted online at http://www.duke.edu/~dks3/Reich/
Sutherland, Roger. “Steve Reich.” EST #3. Reprinted online at ESTWeb.