Electric Counterpoint Essay

Each movement of Electric Counterpoint is different in some ways, but they are all built up of the same two concepts. One is a monophonic chordal progression and the other is a contrapuntal section. The chordal section in movement one introduces the underlining harmony bars 1 to 109, which includes a brief key change, and then fades out to allow the counterpoint to enter. This contrapuntal section builds up slowly one guitar at a time in a manor similar to a fugue. The counterpoint is caused by canon, two part in rhythm and a ratio of five guitars to three (Example). Once established the chordal progression enters again in the remaining guitars, including the key change, which affects the counterpoint only slightly. In movement two the counterpoint starts the piece, building up in the same fugalistic manor as the first movement. However, once it fully completed it is in a three-part canon at three pitches. (Example). As with the first movement a pulsating monophonic chordal progression enters underneath the established counterpoint.

At first hearing of the whole piece the third movement does not appear to remain coherent with the two preceding movements, possible due to the lack of pulsating chords which feature very strongly in the other two movements. But further reading into the score shows that it does still consist of the same two structural elements in a more complicated manor. As with the second movement it begins with the build up of counterpoint. Once the four guitars, which carry the four-part canon at the same pitch, are set, the two basses enter with a hocketing bass line at bar 24. Although this “Hocketing” feature is new to this piece it is arguable that it remains coherent with the rest of the piece due to the fact that hockets and canon are both medieval western compositional devices. Instead of pulsating chords we have strummed bar chords, which are played in canon in three guitars underneath the counterpoint. Therefore Reich maintains the consistency of a chordal harmony underneath the repeating counterpoint, but in this movement he has developed it so that both the features mentioned earlier happen in one section. Once every part is complete, the piece changes back and forth between E minor and C minor, and the time signature between 3/2 and 12/8, before fading out.

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From the above information it is visible to see that the counterpoint enters in a textural build up and that canon is a key structural feature of the contrapuntal sections.

As it was previously mentioned, movement three does not sound coherent with the other two movements. However movements one and three are both in the key of E minor with a change to C minor. Although there are no sharps or flats it is suggested that these are minor keys and not G and E flat major, due to the minor tonality, the use of A minor extended (or the dominant of E minor) and Reich stating that the third movement changes between E minor and C minor.1 The second movement appears to be in E major, which suggest that the whole piece is tonally centred around E. A key feature in all of Reich’s works from the beginning have had a strong sense of tonality and this remains true in Electric Counterpoint.2 There are no accidentals in any of the movements and every chord in the monophonic harmonies can be fully written as extended chords. (Example)

It is also important to note that the timing of the canon and the intervals used in the canons causes the harmonies between the individual parts in the contrapuntal sections. Examples

The inspiration between the melodic motif used in the first movement uses “a theme derived from Central African horn music”.3 As you can see from Example X, it is very simple and slightly syncopated in rhythm. Although nothing is said about the melodic inspiration of movements two and three it is possible that they are influenced by African music. Movement two has a nineteen-count motif over 4/4, 3/4 and 5/8 bars. As with the first motif it is very syncopated and the canon emphasises this. (Example X and Y) The motif of the third movement is a single bar of 3/2, which does eventually fall over a 12/8 bass line, and is also very syncopated. (Example X)

The live guitar plays “melodic patterns that result from the overall contrapuntal web”.4 However, when the piece is heard a different melody can be heard which is not specifically notated. This is a result of the phase shifting caused by canon and is typical of Reich’s work.5

Another key feature that helps to maintain coherence across the three movements is the tempo. The pulse remains steady, caused by the possible setting of the recorded parts to a click track. Metronome markings of ? = 192, ? = 96 and ? = 192 gives a ratio in tempo across the movements of 2:1:2, which helps the piece to feel like one as the speeds are all related specifically, and keeps the tempo consistent even over the cross rhythms.

Performance notes at the end of each movement instruct the player to go straight into the next movement without a pause. This instruction aids the piece to remain as one complete piece due to the flow of one movement to the next, and that the listener does not receive much time to compare and reflect the individual movements.

Another consistent factor across the movements is the use of dynamics. Each chord of the monophonic pulsations slowly fades in and out, with the guitars entering and fading at staggered intervals. By staggering the guitars the crescendos build up from non-existent to vibrant slowly and possibly more effectively. Also by staggering the diminuendos and guitar drop outs, particularly at the beginning on movement one (Example X), the effect of one chord merging into the next occurs, which could be connected to the merging of one movement into the next.

Another factor that aids the piece to remain coherent is the one we may easily put aside. This is the use of instrumentation. The original version by Pat Methany uses fifteen electric guitars, including two bass guitars. By keeping the instrumentation the same throughout, the timbre is consistent. However, by varying the choice of guitars, for example, steel strung or nylon strings on electric or acoustic, with or without distortion, particularly when an ensemble plays the piece, it could produce a different sound. By changing the timbre across the movements, for example, steel strung acoustic for movement one, nylon classical for movement two and electric for movement three, the piece as a whole could lose a considerable amount of unity.

From the above information it is visible that Reich maintains coherence across the three movements of Electric Counterpoint in a number of ways. The two concepts of monophony through chords and counterpoint caused by canon, the fugalistic entry by the guitars, the key signatures, the strong tonal centre throughout, the repeated melodic motifs and the influence behind them, the steady pulse, the lack of pauses between the movements, the dynamics and the timbre are ones mentioned here.

Electric Counterpoint is the third of three counterpoint pieces written by Reich. The first is “Vermont Counterpoint” (1982) for flute and tape, “New York Counterpoint” (1985) the second for clarinet and tape and finally concluding with “Electric Counterpoint” (1987). Reich states “New York counterpoint is a continuation of ideas in Vermont Counterpoint”.6 Therefore, as it has been noticed that there is a demand for academic writing on Reich and his lesser-known works, it could be interesting and useful to see how Steve Reich maintains coherence across the three Counterpoint pieces.

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