Thoughts on Steve Reich's Electric Counterpoint

As both a guitarist and a composer, I am always looking for ways to include electric guitar into more traditional chamber ensembles, as well as ways to utilize the electric guitar on its own. One of the great examples of art music written for electric guitar is Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint, which played a large role in the accepted use of electric guitar by composers of art music, and also is just a really cool piece. I had the pleasure of recording/performing the first movement of this piece as a student at UMBC, and I thought I would write some of my thoughts about the piece for this blog entry.

This piece was originally written for a single guitarist (Pat Metheny) who would record a multitude of layered electric guitar tracks with two electric bass tracks, and then perform a live electric guitar track on top of the recorded tape. What stands out to me, as the result of this layering method, is the consistency in tone and articulation between all of the guitar parts. Since they are all performed by the same player, we can trace the same specific “voice” throughout the entire recording.

Electric Counterpoint is in three movements; fast, slow, fast, played one after the other without pause,” Reich explains in his notes. The piece is held together by the relationships between the three movements with regard to tempo and groove. The tempo in the second movement is halved from the original tempo in the first movement, and then restored in the third movement to the original tempo. This enables Reich to maintain a continuous sense of groove throughout, which creates a sense of cohesion, but does not dilute the differentiation of the three movements.

All three movements build with a canonic structure. Reich’s use of repeating patterns gives way to interesting grooves and contrapuntal melodic material which compliments (and contributes to) the harmonies created by the layers of multiple guitar and bass tracks. It’s not generally difficult to distinguish between voices, but as the layers are piled on, some of the specific lines do seem to get lost in the web.

This piece is very characteristic of Steve Reich. It is highly repetitive, and it makes use of minimalist melodic/harmonic material in creating a very rhythmic, groove-based piece that stimulates the listener as much as it soothes them. A good deal of Reich’s music will compel the listener to essentially surrender to the pulsing grooves and smooth, consonant melodies that Reich creates.

I have known some people to criticize minimalism for its almost strict use of consonance and its simple, repetitive structures. Often, the criticism I hear is that this approach is somehow “lazy” and a shallow attempt to appeal to the layperson (who would prefer a more pleasant listening experience to that of say, Berio or Schoenberg). I would contend, however, that these minimalist elements are utilized purposefully in an attempt to paint the listener’s imagination with a very specific aural picture that becomes indelibly stamped into the listener’s subconscious mind. I have actually allowed some of my “non-musical” friends to listen to works by Steve Reich and often the response I get a few minutes in is a request to change the music! Why might that be? It’s because the insistent repetition of much minimalist work is not there to appease the layperson. If anything, it exhausts the layperson and makes the work seem interminable. A work like Electric Counterpoint demands the listener’s full attention. It requires concentration and submission in order to grasp the full effect of the music.

Obviously, Electric Counterpoint is appealing to me because it is composed for electric guitars and electric bass. Experimenting with layers of guitars in a minimalist style is something I plan to work on in the near-future, and I am sure to find inspiration in Reich’s masterful example here.