Piano Phase - music and emotion

Music and emotion. Emotion in music. A lot to consider. During spring semester I followed a course called "Music and Holocaust" as part of my studies at the Department of Musicology at Copenhagen University.

One of the cases in point was Henryk Górecki's Symphony No. 3, op. 36 (also known as the "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs"). The reception history of the work and its placement within the Holocaust discourse is quite interesting but that's not the main point of this post.

While discussing the work, the course lecturer asked the class what the musical characteristics of the symphony were and what tradition/musical direction it might be said to relate to. I mentioned the immediate similarities to American minimalism (Steve Reich, Terry Riley, La Monte Young, Philip Glass etc.), the similarities being the fact that the symphony is tonally based and makes use of a certain amount of repetition.

The 2nd movement Lento E Largo: Tranquillisimo. Notice the final one and a half minutes where one chord is repeated throughout without diminuendo. Try listening to the timbres and voices of the strings through headphones. Pure bliss! 

In response to this, one of the other students pointed out that Górecki's 3rd is much more emotionally charged than the works of American minimalism that are often characterized by a more intellectual compositional approach. Also the work makes use of functional harmony associated with romantic classical music as opposed to the droning, consonant harmonics and harmonic stasis one often finds in minimalism. He was of course completely right about this - Górecki's 3rd has some quite romantic or "cinematic" qualities that are hard to come by in American minimalism.

But this made me think about what we mean when we talk about emotions in music and the thought came back when I listened to some of Steve Reich's stuff again. Mainly Piano Phase. What struck me about the piece is that even though it is entirely a piece of process music and represents a strictly minimalist, intellectual approach to composing, I find it to be simultaneously brimming over with what I perceive to be a deep seated emotional drive. The difference is that the emotion isn't obvious or on the surface level; it comes forth at an almost subconscious level. It's very powerful and I believe it has something to do with hypnotism and meditation.

Here's an excerpt from Peter Aidu's solo performance (!) of the work:

The full performance is available as a free 256kbps MP3 download here

It's almost transcendent. It is transcendent. That's what I look for in music. I don't care if you use an electric guitar, a laptop, a score or two rocks to achieve it; hint at the possibility of transcendence and you got me hooked...


  1. I think it is a brilliant observation that the symphony is related to the american minimalism. When I have heard the symphony, the repetitive nature has definitely struck me, but I have not made the direct connection that you made due to the more obvious connection to the European tradition, maybe even to the Nordic "tone" or Nordic modernism (the first movement in particular)?
    I am not sure I completely agree with you about the emotional overflow in the Piano Phase example, but I can definitely see a parallel to Music for 18 Musicians in the way this piece combines repetitive structures with the tonality of the chords cycle and the bass clarinet figures.
    You might be interested in reading the article "Going Flat: Post-Hierarchical Music Theory and the Musical Surface" by Robert Fink in "Rethinking Music" (if you not already have?) where he analyses Piano Phase in a discussion of musical flatness and depth.
    I am a little curious about what exactly you mean by "transcendence" with regard to this music. Could you elaborate?

  2. Thanks for your comments, Nikolaj. To be honest my link between Górecki’s 3rd and American minimalism was not taken completely out of the blue, as I have previously stumbled upon descriptions of Górecki as one of the so called “holy minimalists”, the others being Arvo Pärt and Gavin Bryars. As you might be aware of, these composers are seen by some as European counterparts to the Americans mentioned above. In addition to certain minimalist musical traits they also deal somewhat with Christian/religious themes in their music, i.e. the “holy” in “holy minimalism” (now there’s a construction if there ever was one…) But anyway, when listening to Gorecki’s 3rd I definitely find it reasonable to talk about it within the context of (American) minimalism.
    Regarding the emotional overflow etc. it is obviously a very subjective thing to be talking about and I might be projecting my own ideas about emotion (emotions about emotion) onto the Piano Phase piece.
    Maybe this subjective experience stems from Reich’s play with tension/release; his music is often static and moving/dynamic at the same time. The structures can be quite rigid and processual but it is nevertheless an enveloping, organic and vibrant experience to hear his music. Music For 18 Musicians is definitely a good example but I think Piano Phase kind of pin-points this; it’s a small, well defined, kind of eccentric idea, that suddenly lets out all kinds of possibilities and points toward something beyond it’s own borders. Hence my very unscientific remark about “transcendence”. I have the feeling that in some sense this music points beyond it’s own realm. This can probably be said about all kinds of music and it’s probably more than difficult to measure such a thing as “transcendent possibility”, but some things just strike me as having a lot of it. Including some of Reich’s stuff.