The text of ‘Desert Music’

I – fast

“Begin, my friend
for you cannot,
you may be sure,
take your song,
which drives all things out of mind,
with you to the other world.”
from: Theocritus: Idyl I – A version from the Greek

II – moderate

“Well, shall we
think or listen? Is there a sound addressed
not wholly to the ear?
We half close
our eyes. We do not
hear it through our eyes.
It is not
a flute note either, it is the relation
of a flute note
to a drum. I am wide
awake. The mind
is listening.”
from: The Orchestra

III A – slow

“Say to them:
Man has survived hitherto because he was too ignorant to know how to realize his wishes. Not that he can realize them, he must either change them or perish.”
from: The Orchestra

III B – moderate

“it is a principle of music
to repeat the them. Repeat
and repeat again,
as the pace mounts. The
theme is difficult
but no more difficult
than the facts to be
resolved.”
from: The Orchestra

III C – slow

“Say to them:
Man has survived hitherto because he was too ignorant to know how to realize his wishes. Not that he can realize them, he must either change them or perish.”
from: The Orchestra

IV – moderate

“Well, shall we
think or listen? Is there a sound addressed
not wholly to the ear
We half close
our eyes. We do not
hear it through our eyes.
It is not
a flute not either, it is the relation
of a flute note
to a drum. I am wide
awake. The mind
is listening.”
from: The Orchestra

V – fast

“Inseperable from the fire
its light
takes precedence over it.
Who most shall advance the light –
call it what you may!”
from: Asphodel, That Greeny Flower

Excerpts from: Theocrats: Idyl IThe Orchestra, and Asphodel, That Greeny Flower from Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems by William Carlos Williams (Copyright 1954, 1955, 1962 by William Carlos Williams); used by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

Retrieved June 2011 from:http://www.boosey.com/cr/music/Steve-Reich-The-Desert-Music/549

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4 Responses to The text of ‘Desert Music’

  1. I- I really like the non-verbal vocalisations in this section. To me, these vocalisations depict the “shimmering” landscape as described in one of the questionnaires. I find it actually more effective in conveying the desert meaning than the poetry itself.

    II- Do you think there is any significance in relation to meaning in the initial separation between the male and female parts? It is quite striking when the parts come together for “I am wide awake…”, forming a climax which is further developed as the words disintegrate into non-verbal cries.

    III B- Reich has spoken about his fascination with where the natural emphasis of words are placed within language, writing extensively about it in his book “Writings on Music”. It’s interesting that he has overlapped the vocal parts in such a way, that the specific keywords “repeat”, “facts” and “resolved”, are being emphasised at any particular point. This highlighting of certain words will influence our perception of meaning of the text, as we place more importance on what is being underlined.

    III C- In contrast to the previous movement, the words are totally in unison across all vocal parts. This unity places prominence on the whole poem as a whole.

    IV- What do you think Reich’s intention was in setting the same poetry to different movements? The vocal parts in this section seem more unified, could this act as a reaffirmation of the text?

    V- The vocal line, spanning huge registers with a consistently fortissimo dynamic seems suitably epic for the scope of the text.

    (Livia)

  2. I – I agree Livia! although there isnt much happening vocally, I think Reich goes alot of effort to set up the ‘other world’ that is the psychological desert. The repeated syllables and the swells in dynamic also add a sense of confusion to the work as well – like we are slowly getting lost in the desert

    II – I think the strong entry of the male parts gives the piece direction, and the women respond and follow in a more angelic fashion. Maybe female voices were used as they too are in a similar register to the flute, so when the flutes enter the pitch isnt too suprising? I like how Reich speaks of flutes and drums and later gives them a short melody. It shows he is thinking textually and musically. The unity of the voices does indeed emphasise the line ‘I am wide awake’

    III – b – Thank you for your contribution to the background of this section Livia. I believe of all the words mentioned in this sections ‘music’ and ‘difficult’ (especially) appear most significant to me as they are stressed through duration and accent. The words ‘again’ and ‘repeat’ are expressed both textually and in musically but their motific use and layering causes a blur in the original text and meaning for me. The word ‘difficult’ and ‘facts to be resolved’ stayed with me longer than repeat and had greater implications on my sense of meaning for this section. But from what I understand, the principle of music, as described is very confused!

    III – a and c – As the lyrics behind the climax of the piece, I agree that these hold the most significance for the meaning behind the piece. I think it details a very dark idea of the capabilities of man to evolve to far in a sense – and perhaps a warning? Certainly a very interesting lyric. The unity, as mentioned, I believe does serve to emphasise this message.

    IV – In response to your question Livia, I think setting the same lyrics but in unison, helps listeners regain a stronger sense of order and harmonic structure. By going back to what is familiar, Reich, I believe, is trying to lead us out of the psychological desert he has created. The restatement of ‘the mind is listening’ could help keep the audience alert?

    V – I agree that the text is indeed dramatic, and the music helps portray this also! It forms a very memorable finale. By returning to the same vocal syllables and instrumental emphasis, we are back in familiar territory. The final lyrics I suppose help prevent us going back into another trance!

    What does everyone else think?

    Laura 🙂

  3. I- I think even though “their isn’t much happening vocally” in terms of melodic variation, the articulation definitely detracts from the simplicity. Despite only singing at one pitch, controlling the staccato effectively in a range of dynamic swells does sound taxing. The highly physical nature of the performance does communicate a sense of exertion, which we could relate equally to the corporeal struggle of being stranded in a literal desert, or the inner turmoil associated with a psychological desert.

    IV- I totally agree, Laura. Does anyone else find that particular lyric “the mind is listening” slightly humorous though? Its slightly ironic considering some of the indifferent responses we received in the questionnaires! But I suppose this is where the assessment has been interesting; examining different people’s interpretations of the piece and relating them to the meaning Reich intended.

    V- I think the very end of the fifth movement, despite the the lyrics preventing us from going back into another trance, like you said, Laura, I think the cyclic nature of the work puts us in a perpetual desert, one which we cannot escape from. The piece ends with the the original vocalise featured in the first section, the very thing that put us in a trance-like state in the first place! (Livia)

  4. Pingback: The Desert Music, Steve Reich | Towards Better Democracy

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