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    Embargo ends: 31/12/99

Inspired by William Carlos Williams’s poetry, Steve Reich’s 'The Desert Music' (1984), for large orchestra and chorus, represented an important departure from the composer’s previous works of the 1970s and early 80s. Its harmonic language has been described by Reich as “more chromatic and ‘darker’,” while K. Robert Schwarz suggested that its ominous and unsettling sound world served to “broaden [the composer’s] expressive vocabulary.”

The introduction to 'The Desert Music' sets the tone. Featuring full orchestra and choir singing vocable sounds, a pulsing five-chord pattern cycles around four times before we are finally introduced for the first time to Williams’s text. Reich saw these chords as altered dominant harmonies whose jazz inflections appear to relate to an interest in jazz harmony that goes back to the composer’s teenage years, followed by private studies with composer Hall Overton during the late 1950s. Nevertheless, Reich’s sketches dating from around the time he was working on 'The Desert Music' suggest that his harmonic net was cast much wider, as seen in chords copied out from European and American composers from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that included Wagner, Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Bartók, and Ives.

Drawing on materials housed at the Paul Sacher Stiftung in Basel, this paper will trace the evolution of the opening harmonies from 'The Desert Music' in relation to the composer’s sketches, and against the backdrop of Reich’s need to position himself both as heir to the European symphonic canon but also as part of an inherited American vernacular tradition. These two elements appear to play themselves out in what literary theorist Harold Bloom has called the anxiety of influence, where a composer marks his or her own imaginative space by creatively “misreading” the past in various ways.
Original languageEnglish
JournalMitteilungen der Paul Sacher Stiftung
Issue number37
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 31 May 2024
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