Steve Reich: It's gonna rain (1965)
Reich's greatest contribution to Minimalist music was a process known as phasing. Phasing involves two or more loops of identical material, played side by side. One of the two pieces then starts to speed up slightly, slow down slightly, or be manipulated in some other way. The first piece ever actually processed in this way was Reich's "It's Gonna Rain", which was done in 1965. In Union Square in downtown San Francisco, along with the noise of pigeons and traffic, Reich stumbled upon a young Pentecostal preacher by the name of Brother Walter who was preaching his view of what would happen at the end of the world. "Later at home I started playing with tape loops of his voice and, by accident, discovered the process of letting two identical loops go gradually out of phase with each other." (Reich: 1987)
The work is in two parts. The first part consists of two loops lined up in unison, gradually moving in and out of phase with each other, and then slowly moving back to unison again. In the second part, a pair of loops which are of a considerably longer length gradually begin to go in and out of phase with each other. What starts out as a two-voice canon turns into four voices, where one pair is out of phase with the other pair. Finally it breaks into 8 parts and the effect is a "kind of controlled chaos, which may be appropriate to the subject matter - the end of the world" (Reich: 1987)
Mesmerising is a term that has been used to describe this work by Reich. Even though he manages to obscure the original text somewhat, there is a constant rhythmic pulse - no meter, no time signature, just a constant heart beat which carries the work forward. There is also a continuity of the tone used within the piece, which helps reflect the timbre, or musical quality within each loop. Another point of note is the stable level of loudness within the work, although there are minor fluctuations to emphasise certain words or syllables.
In Paul Griffith's book about the avant-garde since 1945, he quotes the 'process' Reich has used to obtain this effect as "... above all else, impersonal: it just goes its way. Another aspect is its precision; there is nothing left to chance whatsoever. Once the process has been set up it inexorably works itself out." (Griffiths: 1981, 179)
Elliott J. Thomson
Terry Riley: In C (1966)
"In C" by Terry Riley is a seminal piece for the growth of minimalism and now the practitioners of real time looping. It is based on 27 phrases of music in the key of 'C'. I believe it can be played by an ensemble of any size. It begins with 1 or more musicians playing the first musical phrase. As the rest of the ensemble joins in and the sound becomes more dense some of the musicians will move on to the 2nd phrase. This continues throughout the piece until everyone in the ensemble is playing phrase 27. So there will be a point in the music when the ensemble is spread over 4 or more phrases; musical vignettes begin to develop, expand, and dissipate. The phrases provide the rhythmic interplay and musical counterpoint, that when the ensemble is listening to each other, very interesting music begins to come into focus, which makes the piece an enjoyable listen. Keep in mind the main rule is that the members of the ensemble must play the 27 phrases in sequential order but not necessarily in unison. Each performance is different because there are no time contraints on how long to play each phrase. The tape I have runs about an hour. No tape recorders are used so the piece is pretty demanding on the ensemble. It can take a long time for the piece to develop but definitely worth the wait.
Pauline Oliveros: I of IV (1966)
One of the first compositions using a tape delay and feedback system was written by electronic composer Pauline Oliveros. Instead of simple closed tape loops, a combination of two tape recorders was used, similar to the setup that 6 years later, Eno and Fripp used on their first collaboration. Pauline Oliveros writes of her piece:
"I of IV was made in July, 1966, at the University of Toronto Electronic Music Studio. It is a real time studio performance composition (no editing or tape splicing), utilizing the techniques of amplifying combination tones and tape repetition. The combination-tone technique was one which I developed in 1965 at the San Francisco Tape Music Center.
"The equipment consisted of twelve sine-tone square-wave generators connected to an organ keyboard, two line amplifiers, mixer, Hammond spring-type reverb and two stereo tape recorders. Eleven generators were set to operate above twenty thousand cycles per second, and one generator at below one cycle per second.
"The keyboard output was routed to the line amplifiers, reverb, and then to channel A of recorder 1. The tape was threaded from recorder 1 to recorder 2. Recorder 2 was on playback only. Recorder 2 provided playback repetition approximately eight seconds later. Recorder 1 channel A was routed to recorder 1 channel B, and recorder 1 channel B to recorder 1 channel A in a double feedback loop. Recorder 2 channel A was routed to recorder 1 channel A, and recorder 2 channel B was routed to recorder 1 channel B.
"The tape repetition contributed timbre and dynamic changes to steady state sounds. The combination tones produced by the eleven generators and the bias frequencies of the tape recorders were pulse modulated by the sub-audio generator."
Terry Riley: Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band (1969)
The American composer Terry Riley is generally agreed to be the creator of the "Time Lag Accumulator" tape delay system, which uses two Revox tape recorders to create loops. Although officially a "classical" composer, CBS/Columbia targeted his 1971 album "A Rainbow In Curved Air" at the rock market, introducing avant-garde musical ideas to the mainstream much as Lennon and McCartney had done in 1967-68.
"Poppy Nogood And The Phantom Band" takes up the second half of the album, and like John Lennon's "Revolution 9", was one of the first "rock" recordings to be based entirely around loops. In the late 60s Riley began giving solo concerts, using the system in conjunction with his own saxophone and keyboards; these performances would often last the entire night, leading the audiences to bring their sleeping bags to the venue. "Poppy Nogood" is effectively one of these "all-night flights" condensed into twenty minutes; an improvisation for organ and soprano saxophone fed through the tape delay. (Michael Peters' History Of Loop article has more information on Riley's work, outside the scope of this review.)
If people really did sleep through Riley's all-night concerts, this writer would like to hear what their dreams were like. "Poppy Nogood" makes for eerie, even sinister, listening, and indeed I've found it works well as a soundtrack to a game of "Doom 2" or "Quake". The first five minutes of the recording is dominated by a horde of saxophone parts reverbed into a chaotic wash of sound, underpinned by a low D drone from the organ. After that, the "wash" fades into the background, but the organ remains; the rest of the piece features Riley's sax soloing over the organ through the tape delay.
Not long after this, of course, Brian Eno (re?)discovered the Time Lag Accumulator, introduced it to Robert Fripp, and the world was never the same again. It makes an interesting comparison to play "Poppy Nogood" back to back with "The Heavenly Music Corporation" (Fripp's first recording with the tape delay), as the two recordings are both improvisations and obviously use the Accumulator system. Anyone seriously interested in the development of looping music should definitely give this album a listen - just don't expect three-chord tricks and a melody you can hum on the train.
OHM - The Early Gurus of Electronic Music - 1948-1980 (includes Poppy Nogood) - Buy it at Amazon.com
Soft Machine: Spaced (1969)
Remember that incredible squeaking organ solo on Soft Machine's Third album? If you liked it, buy this CD. Released in 1996, Spaced is a recording of Soft Machine's ... let's say, industrial ambient tape music for a 1969 multimedia show: rather experimental stuff played by Hopper, Ratledge, and Wyatt. In its radicalism, Spaced could be compared to King Crimson's Thrak, but this was 1969! Soft Machine live recordings plus music played especially for the Spaced show were assembled into a wonderful soundscape by recording engineer Bob Woolford:
"Many tape loops were involved, ranging in length from just a bar or two, to several minutes, with the loops run around milk bottles on the stairs, and requiring retraining the cat to prevent her leaping on each loop as the splicing tape slid by. The original performance tapes, from which this CD is compiled, comprised an introduction, played as the audience entered the Roundhouse, and three dance parts, each mainly the work of one band member."