Doctor of Philosophy
When listening to minimalist music, one will more than likely notice the scarcity of materials. Small motifs and repetition pervade the surface, and one might be inclined to interpret such scarcity as mere redundancy of materials with seemingly few meaningful layers underneath the surface. When analyzing minimalist music, one will notice a similar pattern of scarcity. Music-theoretical scholarship on minimalist music, especially formalist analyses, primarily investigates the rhythmic and melodic connections spanning the entire work. The analytical uncovering of such scarcity through formal means has resulted in few novel analytical approaches and, consequently, an attitude that minimalist music itself is resistant to analysis.
This dissertation, both in its methodological basis and applied analyses, reconceptualizes minimalist composer Steve Reich’s music such that it deemphasizes the quantifiable properties in favour of its qualifiable ones. The works themselves serve as representations of Reich’s compositional activity. One way to conceptualize this activity is “energetic shaping,” the definitive quality behind Robert Hatten’s theory of musical gesture (Hatten 2004). This dissertation explores the signification underlying Steve Reich’s music, primarily through a semiotically grounded theory of musical gesture.
Three different eras in Reich’s compositional output will be examined. His early works of the 1960s focused on bringing an audible process to the listener’s attention. In the 1970s, Reich focused on the rhythmic pattern as he developed his musical style. In the 1980s, the works began sharing similar compositional attributes. These three decades make up his process music, “stylistic” music, and postminimalist music, respectively. The gestures found in these eras are represented by a definitive feature of the work and inferred by the subject of interest. Concerning the former, Reich’s unique musical processes, the rhythmic pattern, and previous analyses are the representative features of interest. Concerning the latter, the listener, performer, and analyst are the ones to deduce the significance underlying each era. The result of this dissertation is an improved understanding of Reich’s music and a new referential perspective that shows minimalist music being open to analysis rather than resistant to it.
Summary for Lay Audience
Minimalist music emerged as a novel, American compositional practice in the 1960s. Its use of scarce musical material and repetition resulted in long works subjected to gradual change. One of the first composers to contribute to this practice was Steve Reich (b. 1936). His early works of the 1960s focused on bringing an audible process to the listener’s attention. In the 1970s, Reich focused on the rhythmic pattern as he developed his musical style. In the 1980s, the works began sharing similar compositional attributes. These three decades make up his process music, “stylistic” music, and postminimalist music, respectively.
Previous music-theoretical scholarship on Reich has focused on connecting underlying elements spanning the entire work, especially rhythmic development. The minimal use of constantly repeating and gradually changing materials has led scholars to similar findings. Subsequently, because of the lack of novelty in analyses using similar methodologies, some scholars have considered Reich’s music, and minimalist music as a whole, to be resistant to analysis. What has not been considered to the same extent is Reich’s musical elements and how they influence musical subjects, including the listener, performer, and analyst. These musical influences are significant, meaning that elements of the music are able to signify other things for musical subjects to infer.
This dissertation investigates the signification in Reich’s process, stylistic, and postminimalist music through musical gesture, a concept that Robert Hatten describes as the “energetic shaping” throughout the music (Hatten 2004). The signification behind these musical gestures will be explained through semiotics, which studies signs by their representation and subsequent interpretation. The significant attributes found in Reich’s musical elements reveal a composer who uniquely developed his compositional practice over three decades.
Ross, Martin, "Gesture in Steve Reich's Music and its Signification: A Referential Approach to His Process, Stylistic, and Postminimalist Works" (2022). Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository. 8945.
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