I have nursed an interest in recording my own version of Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint for several years. There are already many fantastic recordings of the piece available, including Pat Metheny’s iconic premiere version, and I have enjoyed listening to and learning from several of them. So my interest in doing my own version went unrealized for some time, mostly because I did not feel I had a perspective to contribute that would shed new light on the piece. Reich has found much inspiration in the music of Africa throughout his career. I found myself drawn to the idea that it would be interesting to explore the connections between Reich’s counterpoint pieces and the African music that partially inspired them.
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.
Martin’s paper details more of the background of this musical tradition and the link between Reich and European ethnomusicologist Simha Arom’s work on African traditional music. I will stick to how this information impacted the actual studio process and the final recording itself. Among the characteristics of performance practice in Banda-Linda horn ensembles is an embellishment technique of the main thematic material that involves subtly altering the theme, primarily through subtraction, so that the internal motives toggle between an emphasis of duple and ternary metric organization. With Martin’s guidance and Arom’s research, we made several alternate embellished versions of the main canonic material in all the guitar parts in Reich’s first movement, using the Banda-Linda practice as a model. Then later, in the editing process, I came up with a map delineating where the strict canon would be heard in each part, versus when an embellished “module” would enter and underscore a subtle shift to a ternary or duple feel. Based on the principles the musicology illuminated on the first movement, I applied similar parameters to the repeated cells in the third movement.
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.
My hope is that this unorthodox approach has generated a dynamic version that ebbs and flows as a live performance might and offers a fresh sonic take on the piece. Equally as important to me is that this version conveys reverence for both Reich’s original score and the traditional music culture he is referencing. It can be risky to claim to be drawing influence from an indigenous music culture not one’s own; we endeavored to do so with humility. Electric Counterpoint is a remarkable piece that touches on so many musical and cultural associations. My primary interest in creating this new version was to explore and experiment with the ways that its link with an African music tradition was integral to the spirit of the piece. As with any great piece of music, Reich’s Electric Counterpoint rewards many different interpretations, and this experience has only enhanced my appreciation and enthusiasm for the opportunity to hear the piece in familiar as well as new contexts.
I owe a great debt of gratitude to four individuals who worked closely on this project with me: Michael Caterisano who assembled the tracks with me in the initial stage of digital editing; Martin Scherzinger, whose expertise in African music and its intersection with Western composition helped to guide the production process; Memo Salazar, whose design captures the threads of geometry, community, and sonic diversity that I feel are such important aspects of this piece; and Ryan Streber of Oktaven Audio, who provided the ideal studio environment and virtuoso set of ears for the sessions, editing, mixing, and mastering of the final recording.
- Daniel Lippel, 11.2015