Is there an icon for contemporary electric guitar music? I really think so. That icon is called Electric Counterpoint.
According to the Treccani Encyclopedia, the term “exoticism” indicates “any foreign element that appears in literature or art. In linguistics, any lexical element introduced into a given language from a foreign language, especially when it retains its original form, or is a use unrelated to the phonetic, morphological or syntactic structure of the target language; is generally sinon. of forestry (which in the past was also called barbarism). 2. a. With abstract meaning, in general, the taste, research and use of foreign things, extraneous to local traditions, in the arts and in life; adhesion to exotic artistic forms, and in particular. oriental. In a specific sense, the aspiration, which had the greatest diffusion with romanticism and decadence, towards the countries of the East and the South, longed for as countries richer in sensations, and, to a lesser extent, towards those of still primitive civilization.” Francesco Adinolfi, in his excellent book “Mondo Exotica” (Einaudi), a musical, historical, social essay that analyzes the phenomenon of the rediscovery of the so-called lounge / cocktail music and its various subgenres (exotica, space age pop, spy music, crooner music , crime jazz, genre film soundtracks, etc.), indicates how the plural term “exotica” serves to contain and include different elements that reveal themselves to the common feeling. From the noblest to the most challenging. If we go to the heart of the prefix “exo”, external, we realize or what exoticism should imply then “everything that is, unsettling”. All very simple, right? In reality, these two assumptions presuppose a difficult exit from one’s own conditioning and an opening to diversity emptied of any colonialist / imperialist-and geographical fantasy. A theme, this, radically addressed by Edward Wadie Said in his monumental essay “Orientalism”, where he argued that most of the Western studies carried out on oriental populations and culture (in particular relating to the Middle East) served as a self-affirmation of European identity and justified the control and influence exercised in the colonized territories. In this article, I analyze the contribution made by Steve Reich with his composition “Electric Counterpoint” to two concepts such as exoticism and cosmopolitanism, also referring to the cultural heritage left to us by Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci highlighted how a narrative was in place at the time according to which a certain cultural form had the right to dominate another; Gramsci called this dominant form “cultural hegemony”, showing how capitalism used the occult power of hegemonic discourse to achieve mandatory cultural identity. Said absorbed this theory as a reference, and inserted it into the power relationship between Western culture and Eastern culture, defining orientalism as a new colonial policy established by imperialism. Orientalism, and with it exoticism, is a manifestation of cultural hegemony, which gives orientalism the power to sustain itself. You are probably wondering what an American composer like Steve Reich has to do with such themes. Not a little, as his cultural background and his musical background are linked to African, Balinese and Asian music.
However, I believe it is appropriate to go step by step. It all starts with the booklet that accompanies the first edition of Nonesuch Records of “Electric Counterpoint”, where we find written:
“Electric Counterpoint was commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival for the guitarist Pat Metheny. It was composed during the summer of 1987. The duration is about 15 minutes. It is the third in a series of pieces (preceded by Vermont Counterpoint and New York Counterpoint) all dealing with a soloist playing against a prerecorded tape of themselves. In Electric Counterpoint, the soloist prerecords as many as 10 guitars and two electric bass parts and then plays the final eleventh guitar part live against the tape. I would like to thank Pat Metheny for showing me how to improve the piece in terms of making it more idiomatic for the guitar. The work is in three movements—fast, slow, fast—played one after the other without pause. The first movement, after an introductory pulsing section where the harmonies of the movement are stated, uses a theme derived from Central African horn music that I became aware of through the ethnomusicologist Simha Arom. That theme is built up in eight voice canon and, while the remaining two guitars and bass play pulsing harmonies, the soloist plays melodic patterns that result from the contrapuntal interlocking of those eight prerecorded guitars. The second movement cuts the tempo in half, changes key and introduces a new theme, which is then slowly built up in nine guitars in canon. Once again, two other guitars and bass supply harmony, while the soloist brings out melodic patterns that result from the overall contrapuntal web. The third movement returns to the original tempo and key and introduces a new pattern in triple meter. After building up a four-guitar canon, two bass guitars enter suddenly to further stress the triple meter. The soloist then introduces a new series of strummed chords that are built up in three-guitar canon. When these are complete, the soloist returns to melodic patterns that result from the overall counterpoint, suddenly, the basses begin to change both key and meter back and forth between E minor and C minor and between 3 2 and 12 8 , so that one hears first three groups of four eighth-notes and then four groups of three eighth notes (see ex. 36-1). These rhythmic and tonal changes speed up more and more rapidly until at the end the basses slowly fade out and the ambiguities are finally resolved in 12 8 and E minor.”
Quoting Borges, I could define Electric Counterpoint as a work of reasoned imagination, the result of a complex, articulated and conceptual process. In his excellent book “The electric guitar in concert music”, the Italian guitarist Sergio Sorrentino writes: “Absolute masterpiece of the cultured repertoire for electric guitar, the Electric Counterpoint has constituted a clear watershed in the history of this instrument. The strength and success of this piece have invited many composers to break the delay and to approach the world of the electric guitar .. (…) .. In this piece Reich inserts different elements of his musical thought. We find the counterpoint imitative element, African rhythms, short repetitive phrases, a strong tonal system. ” Basically Electric Counterpoint is a dance, a dance that can be danced like the music of Kraftwerk, like architecture dances. A dance that starts from afar, from Central Africa, whose theme is borrowed from the recordings contained on the BANDA POLYPHONY disc, produced by Unesco in 1975 and focused on traditional music performed by groups of musicians of various wind and percussion instruments of the Central African Republic. Reich is not new to these experiments. In the interview with Enzo Restagno, published in the book “Various Reich Authors” he states: “I started playing the drum when I was 14 and it is an interest that I have cultivated all my life. In the cultured music of the West the drum is only one of the instruments of the orchestra and is part of the percussion; the term “drumming” means to play the drum, but it belongs to the sphere of jazz and pop music. It was listening to African music that I realized that there the conception of music for percussion instruments was much broader and encompassed both of the categories I mentioned earlier. “Drumming” is first of all an effort to attribute to the drum, and therefore to the origins of my musical upbringing, the broadest possible meaning. The use I made of voices in this piece has a precise jazz origin, because jazz singing – I am thinking in particular of Ella Fitzgerald – starts from the premise of using the voice as an instrument. In addition to these jazz suggestions, which summarize some elements of my youth musical education, there is another element of great importance, which derives from the experience I had in Ghana, where I went to study percussion. On my return from that trip, the problem arose of how to use the knowledge I had acquired there, but it was immediately clear to me that I would not use African-style instruments, but those I used to, such as marimba and glockenspiel. The instruments I had brought with me from Africa, some rattles and various types of bells, had a different type of intonation from the Western one. If I had used them I would have ended up distorting their character and would not have drawn any particular profit from them. What interested me was not in fact the exotic color, but the structure; for this I decided to play with our instruments the kind of music I had learned in Africa and I set to work with Arthur Murphy, Steve Chambers and Jon Gibson, who were my most faithful collaborators. In this case it was African music, but it could be said in a broad sense that the exotic suggestions from the East did not have a positive effect on our music, because no one was able to synthesize the two systems. My personal solution consisted in referring to the structure instead of the sonority; to a certain extent this way of proceeding could be likened to that of Bartók, who was particularly attracted to structures in his research on folk song. Personally, I do not see any other way of relating to music, not from Africa or the East, but also to those of the cultured Western tradition, since it should be clear that one cannot imitate the content of the music of composers of the past, while knowledge of the formal structures that act in those music can be decidedly useful. “
Reich’s interest in African music dates back to when he was a student at Cornell University in the mid-1950s. Later in 1962, he attended a student composition lecture in Ojai, California, in which American composer Gunther Schuller spoke of his interest in African music in connection with his book on early jazz in America. Schuller claimed to have found a book with accurate transcriptions of Ghanaian music: “Studies in African Music” by A.M. Jones. Back in San Francisco, where he was living at the time, Reich borrowed this two-volume book from the library; being surprised to find something in it that could be described as overlapping repeated motifs so that the main tempos do not coincide, realizing that it was a radically different way of making music and that it had affinities with the experiments he was beginning to do at the time with multiple and simultaneous looped tapes After having composed It’s gonna rain, Come Out, Piano Phase, Phase, Four Organs, Phase Patterns and other works, Reich left for Ghana in the summer of 1970, where he was able to meet Robert Fraser, author of the book “Literature, Music and Cosmopolitanism”, which we will return to later. Upon returning to New York from Accra, Reich not only brought with him numerous transcriptions of African music (published in his essay book “Writings on Music”, but also various iron bells called gong-gong and atoke, planning to use them in his He realized, however, that the bells came from a specific musical context and tradition, and that they presented intonation problems with Western music, the solution of which would have involved a radical intervention (taking a file and changing its intonation He preferred to let it go. Later, in 1974 and 1975, Reich studied Balinese music during the summer sessions of the American Society for Eastern Arts, in Seattle and Berkeley. Once again he was struck by the rhythmic structure of the music that resulted from McPhee’s transcriptions. There was a creative turning point: Reich decided that he did not want to imitate the scales or timbres of this music at all, but that what interested him was rather the structure. ture of music. He didn’t want to imitate the sound of Balinese or African music, he rather wanted to think in Balinese or African terms, developing his own ideas on rhythmic construction while retaining a personal sound. Around him the world moved differently: other composers and musicians around him began to imitate the scales and vocal and instrumental timbres of various non-Western music, especially Indian, introducing non-Western instruments such as the sitar in rock bands , creating “Indian style” vocal or instrumental melodies on electronic drones and so on. A confirmation of the forms of “cultural hegemony” indicated by Gramsci and Said, a revival in cultured form of exotic music. A sort of updated “chinoiserie”. In contrast to this type of sound imitation, Reich decided to learn from the structure of African and Balinese music, using the same learning process adopted by Western music students when learning, for example, canon. The trip to Ghana proved to be more of an encouragement than a turning point in his compositional style. If his formative works (It’s gonna rain, Come Out, Piano Phase, Violin Phase etc.) date back to the 60s, and therefore precede his stay in Ghana in 1970, that journey substantially confirmed the direction he was already following: the interest in acoustic instruments compared to electronic ones, for percussion and phasing, the intuition of which came from observing two tapes in loop unfolding on two recorders, but whose development potential came with the reading of the African transcription book by AM Jones.
Bring a little more patience, we are about to arrive at Electric Counterpoint. Some time later, in 1975, Reich learned of the research of the ethnomusicologist Simha Arom. While he was in Paris in 1976 for a series of concerts with his ensemble, he had the opportunity to meet him briefly and to find out about his recording and transcription work carried out in Central Africa. In 1987, just as he was beginning to compose Electric Counterpoint for electric guitar and tape, Reich received a copy of his opera Polyphonies at Polyrythmies Instrumentales D ‘Afrique Centrale (1985). Reading the book, Reich was struck by one of the motifs for three horns. By unifying the three horn parts and extending the motif over two measures with a slight modification, Reich created the theme for the first movement of Electric Counterpoint. This theme is then developed in strict canon by a total of eight guitars, to which are added the live performer and three bass guitars. It was the first time Reich was able to use an African theme in one of his pieces. Finding it in a book where it was already transcribed in Western notation made the intonation problem previously encountered irrelevant. Reich had played bingo. The “African” qualities of Electric Counterpoint concern not so much the sound, but rather the metric ambiguity in the arrangement of the main accents, which in turn depends on the density with which the canon unfolds between the various parts. This ambiguity is found above all in the last movement, in which the African theme does not even appear and where the metric scan is in 4/4, instead of the characteristic ambiguity of Ghana in 3/2 = 12/8. Since Electric Counterpoint is a music based on motivic repetition, it is necessary to introduce a certain rhythmic ambiguity, in order to vary the acoustic perception of the motif. In this Reich he turns out to be a master, in his book “Writings on Music 1965-2000” he writes: “We all hear our Western scale before we learn to walk or talk. It is deeply programmed in our conscious and unconscious mind. To try, later in life, to imitate a scale from Bali or India is, it seems to me, rather problematic. To really do it best one needs to use the original non-Western instruments, which are best played by the original non-Western players, and so what exactly is one doing here? On the other hand, Western musical structures like canon, fugue, and others are learned considerably later in life and are really only learned well by professionals or well-trained amateurs. These ways of putting music together can thus be transported to another culture more easily because they are not as deeply ingrained in our minds. One can thus create music with one’s own sound that is constructed in the light of one’s knowledge of non Western structures.”
For Reich, one can study the rhythmic structure of non-Western music and let this study affect one’s music, while continuing to use the instruments, scales and sounds with which one grew up: the result is an interesting situation, in which non-Western influence manifests itself in the conception of the work, but not in the sound. It is a more fascinating and genuine form of synthesis, in which in listening one is not necessarily aware that there are references to non-Western music. An attitude far removed from the forms of cultural appropriation described by Edward D. Said. A cultural attitude that looks more to cosmopolitan forms than to an exotic legacy. In his book Literature, Music and Cosmopolitanism, author Robert Fraser indicates that Reich, before concentrating on music, was a philosophy student at Columbia, where he had written a dissertation on Wittgenstein. Just as Wittgenstein had been interested in the procedures involved in language games, so Reich had been fascinated by the workings of what you might call percussive sound games. Just as Wittgenstein had tried to dig to the deepest roots of meaning, so Reich had tried to discover the most essential roots of rhythm. What did Reich learn from Africa? I think his debt is clear in two respects. In the first place, I think he learned how it is possible to create a large-scale work made mostly of percussion based on fairly basic structures. Second, he seems to have assimilated the idea of a cueing technique, whereby a performer starts a new series of riffs and invites others to follow him. According to Jones, this is an important element in Ewe’s ensembles, where the Master Drummer initiates each new stage of the process. In its spiral-shaped development, Reich’s work touches upon the themes and techniques of his beginnings, but with all the aids of more advanced technology and more advanced thinking. Proof of this in the 1980s are the various “counterpoints”, in which the instruments play against themselves or against their own recorded image. Thus Vermont Counterpoint was born in 1982, for piccolo, flute, alto flute and magnetic tape, in 1985 New York Counterpoint for clarinet, bass clarinet and magnetic tape, and in 1987 Electric Counterpoint for guitar and magnetic tape, all compositions that are based on the canon and follow the same procedures as Violin Phase and Piano Phase, but with more extensive melodic figurations and more flexible harmonic changes . From this moment on, the procedures invented and perfected from time to time are no longer sufficient to describe Reich’s works; the techniques, the ideal motifs and the dramatic projections are intertwined in complex textures with an interlocking capacity that loses nothing of the its deductive rigor.
The recognition of these constants can offer not only a new interpretation of Reich’s music, but also of the facts relating to cultural migrations. When Steve Reich went to Ghana in the summer of 1970, he wasn’t looking for anything exotic other than what he was familiar with in America. He sought affinity in the form of rhythmic pulses, probably the most definitive and omnipresent element in all of his musical production. Is there a cultural DNA? I do not believe. Nor do I believe that genetic DNA can shed light on that peculiar mixture of language, taste, education, sexuality and private history that each of us encompasses, nor on the “national character” of a country. The dissemination of cultural norms, however, is a universal adventure in which we are all involved and which also concerns Electric Counterpoint. If all human culture has been involved in complicated migratory paths, historical or contemporary, if Reich found inspiration in the music of Africa during his career, there are those who have continued on this path. In 2016 the American guitarist Daniel Lippel, in turn attracted by the possibility of exploring the connections between the opposing pieces of Reich and the African music that had partially inspired them, proposed a new form of interpretation.
“My initial approach was largely based on some superficial characteristics I associated with certain African musical traditions. I felt that a version of Electric Counterpoint that emphasized metric duality (specifically the simultaneous rhythmic contextualization of a passage of music in both duple and triple meter), and timbral heterogeneity might begin to capture the spirit I was hoping for. Luck would have it that amidst the planning period for the recording sessions, my path crossed with South African born ethnomusicologist and composer Martin Scherzinger. Among his areas of scholarly and artistic interest is examining examples of how Western composers have integrated African musical material into their work. Martin was working on a paper on Reich’s Electric Counterpoint just at the time we met. He supported my feeling that metric duality and diverse timbres might begin to illuminate the African roots of the material. I learned from Martin about the original source for the canonic material from the opening movement of the work. It is taken from a traditional piece associated with adolescent initiation rites for large horn ensemble by the Banda-Linda peoples in Central Africa.”
The meeting with the ethnologist and composer Martin Scherzinger allowed Lippel to deepen the “exotic” roots of Electric Counterpoint and to work on new rhythmic cells:
“We also added several other elements to the studio process in the hopes of connecting the piece to its roots. A few of the guitar parts include preparations on the strings that suggest other plucked string instruments including the African lamellaphone, and lend a more percussive timbre to the texture. For the passages involving pulsating repeated block chords in individual parts, we divided the chords into three-note oscillating patterns to produce an internal ternary rhythmic grouping juxtaposed over the prevailing meter (for example, repeated C major block chords in one part became three layered divisi parts, each repeating a three note cell, C-E-G, the next E-G-C, and the last, G-C-E). For the repeated rhythmic cycle in the second movement (which Reich notates as a 3/4, 5/8, 4/4 repeated passage), I played multiple contrasting metric orientations in different parts, with a concluding “correction” to account for the nineteenth eighth note in the passage (for instance 6/8, 6/8, 7/8, or four 2/4 bars plus a 3/8). The intended result is a more linear texture that highlights the unique contour of this rhythmic cycle without internal mixed meter interruptions of the rhythmic feel.”
This unorthodox approach has spawned a new version, with increased dynamics, that ebbs and flows like a live performance and delivers a new sonic version of the piece. At the same time this version conveys reverence for both the original version and the traditional musical culture to which it refers. It can be risky to pretend to draw influence from a musical culture other than one’s own, but both Reich and Lippel managed to do so with a lot of humility. Electric Counterpoint is a remarkable piece that touches and crosses so many musical and cultural connections. As with any great piece of music, it rewards many different interpretations, and this version has brought new enthusiasm by giving us the opportunity to hear this piece in a different context. Daniel Lippel treats Reich’s sound as one of the materials of his art. Where by art we mean a way to organize one’s considerations on history, progress and the relationships between these things and the individual. The result is an irresistible combination of coolness and catchy, time and backlash.
Personally I think non-Western music can still be an important source of inspiration for Western composers and musicians looking for new ideas. Western musicians of generations prior to ours could only hear non-Western forms, live or recorded. Today the possibilities of learning to play African, Balinese, Javanese, Indian, Korean, Japanese, and many more, have multiplied directly from musicians from the same countries. A Western musician therefore has the opportunity to approach non-Western music as if it were his own, to learn to play it by studying with a qualified teacher and to analyze it in detail to understand how it is made. It will thus be possible to discover fundamentally different systems of compositional structure, construction of scales, tuning and instrumental techniques whose knowledge would lead to consider the Western system not as, quoting Gramsci, a form of “cultural hegemony”, but as one of the many possibilities.
I would like to quote Sergio Sorrentino again: “Electric Counterpoint is the most performed and recorded piece for electric guitar. It is the absolute masterpiece of the repertoire, written by what is the most important and influential living composer of Western classical music. In this composition the guitar is split into multiple alter egos and at the same time inhabits numerous parallel realities. It is the poetics of the fascinating complexity of the contemporary era.”