It was gonna rain

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This is what the local TV and radio programming was like around here through Saturday night and Sunday morning:

Well, that and occasional tornado warnings…

We did get six inches or so, on top of the 13.5 inches that had already fallen during the month of August, making this the wettest month in local recorded history. A few blocks down Market St. from Language Log Plaza, the Schuylkill crested at above fifteen feet:

Steve Reich's It's gonna rain involved manipulating physical pieces of tape. Here's what he says about it  (Writings on Music, 1965-2000):

Late in 1964, I recorded a tape in Union Square in San Francisco of a black preacher, Brother Walter, preaching about the Flood. I was extremely impressed with the melodic quality of his speech, which seemed to be on the verge of singing. [...]

By using recorded speech as a source of electronic or tape music, speech-melody and meaning are presented as they naturally occur. It is quite different from setting words to music where one has to fit a number of syllables to a number of notes, and decide what their melodic relation will be. In speech, questions of how many notes to a syllable, or what their meloody will be, do not arise; the speech just comes out.

As someone who has worked on the analysis and synthesis of intonation, I found it shocking that Reich wrote as if in natural speech, no one has to "fit a number of syllables to a number of notes, and decide what their melodic relation will be".  On closer reading, I realize that what he means is that he as the composer doesn't have to do any fitting and deciding, since the speaker has already done that for him. But the same thing would be true if he was working with recordings of opera or lieder, after all. Reich goes on:

My original interest in electronic music was the possibility of working with recorded speech.

During the early '60s, I was interested in the poetry of William Carlos Williams, Charles Olsen, and Robert Creeley, and tried, from time to time, to set their poems to music, always without success. THe failure was due to the fact that this poetry is rooted in American speech rhythms, and to "set" poems like this to music with a fixed meter is to destroy that speech quality. [...] Using actual recordings of speech for tape pieces was my solution, at that time, to the problem of how to make vocal music.

[...] If one could present that speech without altering its pitch or timbre, one would keep the original emotional power that speech has while intensifying its melody and meaning through repetition and rhythm.

Constant repetition through tape loops produces just such a rhythmic intensification. The idea of using constant repetition partially grew out of working with tape loops since 1963 [...] My problem was then to find some new way of working with repetition as a musical technique. My first thought was to play one loop against itself in some particular relationship, since some of my previous pieces had dealt with two or more identical instruments playing the same notes against each other. In the process of trying to line up two identical tape loops in unison in some particular relationship, I discovered that the most interesting music of all was made by simply lining the loops up in unison, and letting them slowing shift out of phase with each other. As I listened to this gradual phase shifting process, I began to realize that it was an extraordinary form of musical relationship. This process struck me as a away of going through a number of relationships between two or more identities without ever having any transitions. [...]

The first part of the tape piece It's Gonna Rain, completed in January 1965, is a literal embodiment of this process. Two loops are lined up in unison and then gradually move completely out of phase with each other, and then back into unison. The experience of that musical process is, above all else, impersonal; it just goes its way. Another aspect is its precision; there is nothing left to chance whatever. [...]

I discovered the phasing process by accident. I had two identical loops of Brother Walter saying "It's gonna rain," and I was playing with two inexpensive tape recorders–one jack of my stereo headphones plugged into machine A, the other into machine B. I had intended to make a specific relationship; "It's gonna" on one loop again "rain" on the other. Instead, the two machines happened to be lined up in unison and one of them gradually started to get ahead of the other. The sensation I had in my head was that the sound moved over to left ear, down to my left shoulder, down my left arm, down my leg, out across the floor to the left, and finally began to reverberate and shake and become the sound I was looking for–"It's gonna/It's gonna rain/rain"–and then it started going the other way and came back together in the center of my head.

The version posted on youtube doesn't seem to me to correspond very well to Reich's verbal description, but it does do a decent job of evoking my impressions of the local real-time hurricane coverage, which others have called "a perfect storm of hype".

Denizens of this digital age may not understand the physical process involved in making and using a tape loop — but to my surprise, I found a book published in 2010, reprinting articles from a 1997 magazine, that covers this (I thought) gratefully dead art. I can't tell you how thankful I was when computers (or at least those available to me) got to have enough memory that I no longer had to spent hours in physical tape splicing in order to prepare a perception test.

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6 Comments »

  1. Carl said,

    August 29, 2011 @ 5:53 am

    What's remarkable to me looking back is that it took so long for turntablism to be discovered. Compared to what can be done today with programs like Acid Loops, this is primitive, but that's to be expected. What's remarkable is how primitive this is compared to what can be done with two turntables and a fader. Certainly, people back in the ’60s had the tools to create good music instead of these interesting but unlistenable experiments, but it took a bunch of kids in the Harlem party scene to realize that you could make actual music out of loops of pre-recorded material. I suppose one of the advantages the Harlem kids had was that they were in a dance scene—so wankery wasn't tolerated—and disco music is basically already beat matched, so it didn't take much insight to realize that they could be played back-to-back seamlessly. The genius moment came though when Kool Herc realized that if you had two copies of the same record you could just play the same break forever if you wanted. After that, the remaining innovations came more or less naturally, to the point that compositions like this and Revolution9 sound quite aimless and primitive.

    [(myl) Maybe turntable manipulation wouldn't have worked as well before low-tracking-force cartridges in the mid 1960s?]

  2. Bruce Rusk said,

    August 29, 2011 @ 7:01 am

    The soul group Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings edit their records by cutting tape manually with a razor.

    [(myl) Strange as it may seem, that's the traditional method.]

  3. idlemind said,

    August 29, 2011 @ 2:01 pm

    Carl, originally Musique Concrete (as created by Pierre Schaeffer, et all) utilized nothing but turntables. In fact, it was a full decade before the Groupe de Recherche de Musique Concrète obtained tape recorders.

  4. Carl said,

    August 29, 2011 @ 2:59 pm

    Ah, I've been meaning to look into Musique Concrete for about a decade now… Perhaps it's time I finally do so.

  5. a said,

    August 29, 2011 @ 10:45 pm

    I felt like the sound was moving from the right earphone to the left info sometime in the first half of that track. I noticed it before I got to reading the part Reich claimed the sound seemed to move. I haven't noticed it going out of my feed though.
    (going back to check I think it seemed to move just after 2 mins. I am not an expert on electronic music or anything so I can't suggest what else might be creating this effect.)

  6. Akma » Predigital said,

    September 2, 2011 @ 4:39 am

    [...] this piece from Language Log brought back memories of my semesters studying/practicing electronic music as an undergraduate. The [...]

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