Bridging the Gap through Couterpoint


Trouw at ConcertgebouwSteve Reich’s Clapping Music is based on the most fundamental concept behind counterpoint forms.  It looks something like this:

Steve Reich, Clapping music


Yes all 5 odd minutes of it. It is after all an example of minimalist composition. It’s a simple rhythm for two un-pitched instruments. Which instruments exactly? It’s in the title. Clapping, striking one’s hands together at the palms. Try it for yourself. Anyone can play it.

Techno is a descendent of House. It is a grittier variation of the genre born out of the Orwellian suburbs of Detroit, the cool child of house that doesn’t conform to family values. If House was the reaction to Disco’s inevitability, Techno was the natural progression to the latter’s human nature, negating any anthropomorphic associations in favour of the machine aesthetic. The instrumentation resembles computer processes that are mostly devoid of any human involvement at a performance level. Machines and Computers drone and bleep away at a steady 130 odd beats per minute in what would be a stark contrast to Mr. Reich’s clapping music if it were not for similarities in the simplicity of their rhythm. The instruments were accessible to anyone with a small budget and an ignorance of musical theory was preferred. Anyone could compose it.

8 bars on, the second player moves his clapping phrase one beat over. A simple counterpoint ensues. The homophonic texture becomes polyphonic. The original rhythmic motif is now largely unrecognisable in its new format.

Techno has undergone many variations through its own history. The Detroit sound that first spawned the genre is now largely un-identifiable to its current prevailing form in Europe. The unremitting simplification of the genre has seen irregular rhythms replaced by a steady four on the floor beat in most circumstances. Today it is enjoying a far more stripped down industrial sound on one end of the spectrum. In all honesty it’s a sound that has been around for about 20 years, but it is enjoying a revival with artists like Clouds, Shed, Perc and Karenn. The other side of its range is one that developed from a minimal variation and focusing largely on the bass frequencies, appropriates something of a house aesthetic. Here artists like South London Ordinance, Rumah and Alex Smoke front the brigade.

Another 8 bars in and, The Royal Albert Hall, where I first witnessed a performance of Clapping Music, is now aiding in the profusion of sound as the sound reflects throughout its cavernous dome.

A few years later and securely in the present, Patrice Bäumel achieves the same effect through electronic means. Using a digital delay, he manipulates the input supplied by marimba player, Dominique Vleeshouwers crafting an artificial counterpoint when the original sound mixes with the new. Looking around the Concert Gebouw in Amsterdam as the clatter reflects off names like Mozart and Handel, the whole scene is unfamiliar in this context. Young faces dressed in causal garb look towards a contemporary lighting display fronted by a PA system of immense proportions.

The Royal Albert Hall is reserved in comparison, even in its Proms standing-room-only disguise. The audience is at its average age more mature than that of the Concert Gebouw and the instruments merely rely on the natural acoustics of their venue to amplify the performance.

Skip forward another 4 evolutions of the 8 bar phrase and the Royal Albert Hall is now dense with a sonic atmosphere as can supplied by four hands.

At the height off Techno’s popularity key artists started looking out of its comfort zone. Dopplereffekt and Jeff Mills, some of the original purveyors of the Detroit sound left their roots and adopted a sound straight out of electro-acoustic compositions. The more adventurous artists of the genre are now no longer content in the confined limits of its processes.

Forever pushing the boundaries of music in general, one of the 90’s more audacious harbingers of Techno, Richard D James eventually overlaps with Steve Reich. A performance of the latter’s Pendulum Music conducted by Aphex Twin as part of his remote orchestra performance is the result. The Barbican acts as a gateway between the so-called low art of Techno and western fine art music forms. Several microphones sheathed in mirror balls swing over speakers, emitting various degrees of feedback depending on their trajectory and velocity. Being released one-by-one, the composition swells in distinguishable similarities to Clapping Music. In this instance however, the only human involvement is nothing more than a mechanical process in the propulsion of the spheres through space.

The counterpoint develops as the swinging pendulums gather momentum creating a tapestry of rhythms. A laser show straight out of a club environment bounces off the tiny mirrors and fills the main hall of the Barbican with an abundance of light that resembles the sonic brilliance of Clapping Music at its peak.

Where does Steve Reich end and Aphex Twin begin? The lines get somewhat blurred. Techno can’t help but affirm associations with the minimalists as their constructs are analogous in their DNA and thus look to them for guidance as to the next step. Producers like Henrik Schwartz are putting their music in the context of an orchestra pit while on the opposite end of the scale; composers like Max Richter are adopting technological processes concurrent with techno in the performances of their music. Audience members are migrating from the nightclub to the concert hall … and back again.

Yellow Lounge feature contemporary classical music in the club context and classical institutions are reciprocating. It is here between these two, what at first seemed to be contrary cultural communities, where interesting and though provoking music is happening.

Matmos performs with the Contemporary London Orchestra. Pantha Du Prince performs in C with its original composer, Terry Riley. Jeff Mills is recording with Philharmonic Orchestras and the V&A are hosting regular events with the focus on electronic music. The list goes on and on like the reverb through the Royal Albert Hall as Clapping Music comes to its conclusion

Eventually Clapping Music regresses in the same manner it progressed and we find ourselves at the beginning again. A homophonic rhythm as supplied by two musicians.

Techno in its most prevalent formats has produced nothing of absolute lustre that can rival the tenacity of the Clapping Music at the zenith of its existence. Where the two rhythms are the furthest apart they create the fullest of sonic palettes.

Techno is lost in its own cyclical re-appropriation of old styles. Defeating most of its groundbreaking objective that spawned its origins. Classical music’s audience is getting older and the original Avant Garde that is still with us cannot be expected to still bear the torch of innovation for the end of time. Marginalised electronic music has become the crossover point between these two distinct cultures and the Art in western music is now finding its way into music of a popular nature through Techno. These two genres are bridging the gap.