Musical Wellsprings in a Parched Landscape: The Evolution of Steve Reich's Harmonic Language in The Desert Music (1984)

Musical Wellsprings in a Parched Landscape: The Evolution of Steve Reich's Harmonic Language in The Desert Music (1984)
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Join Professor Pwyll ap Siôn (Bangor University) to explore the evolution of Steve Reich's harmonic language in The Desert Music.

Abstract: Premiered in Cologne, West Germany, on 17 March 1984, and at the Brooklyn Academy of Music with the Brooklyn Philharmonic and Chorus under Michael Tilson Thomas later the same year, Steve Reich’s The Desert Music has become one of his most important compositions. In addition to being the first work by Reich for symphony orchestra and chorus, the uninterrupted fifty-minute ‘choral symphony’ sets English-language words for the first time (in this case, selections from poems by William Carlos Williams) and was one of Reich’s first works to explore the ABCBA palindrome-like structure (favoured by Bartók and others), subsequently used by the composer in many other works, ranging from Sextet (1985) to Runner (2016).

Perhaps more importantly, The Desert Music marks a departure into a new sound world, partly prompted by the tone of Williams’s texts, whose ominous harmonies have been described by Reich as more chromatic and darker than previous works. This prompted K. Robert Schwarz to suggest that The Desert Music’s most startling aspect was its ‘heightened emotional range’, supported by its unsettling harmonies, which served to ‘[broaden] Reich’s expressive vocabulary.’

The introduction of the work, comprising a five-chord pattern cycling four times, sets this ominous tone. Reich has described these chords as essentially altered dominant harmonies, whose origins can be traced to the composer’s private studies with jazz musician, composer and arranger Hall Overton between 1957­–58, prior to enrolling at the Juilliard School of Music the following year, and his general interest at the time in the chordal language of jazz musicians such as Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane.

Nevertheless, Reich’s sketches dating from the time when he was composing The Desert Music suggests that he was in fact casting his harmonic net much wider to find the right sound. Chords copied into the sketchbooks from Wagner, Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Bartók (some of which appear to have been taken from Walter Piston’s Harmony textbook), and perhaps most significantly, Charles Ives, suggest that Reich sought to align himself as much with the established canon of late nineteenth and early twentieth-century orchestral music as with jazz masters such as Monk and Coltrane, as shown when the opening harmonies of The Desert Music are analysed in the light of the sketch materials.

Professor Pwyll ap Siôn is a musicologist and composer. He read music at Magdalen College, Oxford, graduating in 1990. He studied composition at Bangor University with John Pickard, and also with Martin Butler, receiving his PhD in 1998. He has been a member of staff at the School of Music since 1993.

Speaker
Professor Pwyll ap Siôn
Venue
MacRobert Building MR028 (and via Teams)
Contact

For further information or to receive the Microsoft Teams link for this event, please contact Christina Ballico

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