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Phasing and Form, Ryan Tanaka -- Index

Note:  This article is a re-write of an earlier paper, Phasing, Relativity, Serialism -- written as a thesis project at the California Institute of the Arts in 2007.  (Under the supervision of Steven Takasugi and Sara Roberts.)
Largely popularized by Steve Reich's "phasing" works (Piano Phase [1972], Violin Phase [1967], etc.), phasing techniques have now become a common methodology within contemporary music circles as a way to generate musical ideas from a limited amount of source materials.  This article attempts to establish generalizations based on observations of the technique, both in theory and in practice.  The theories listed here have been shown to be reproducible and consistent regardless of its musical context -- therefore can be reasonably concluded that the generative method of phasing adheres to certain technical rules that make it possible to understand it in terms of a formulaic process.  Click on the links for a more detailed look at each idea:
1) Phasing as De-SynchronizationMusical phasing is caused by a de-synchronization in tempo (measured in relative terms) with the faster instrument pulling ahead of its slower counter-part.  Reich has frequently notated "accelerate very slightly" in his work that involve phasing -- however, the phenomenon can actually be achieved in more ways than one, including the second performer slowing down, or the two performers trading off in regards to who would be the next one to "pull ahead" to the next pattern combination.
2) Phasing and Syncopation: When phasing from one pattern combination to the next between two instruments, there exists a point in which the instruments' patterns are in complete rhythmic separation from one another, creating an identical syncopated pattern.  The tensions that phasing techniques produce are often correlated to harmonic consonance and dissonance, where the moment of relaxation arrives when the patterns "lock" into each other after a period of rhythmic disarray.  Labeling a fully syncopated rhythm as the being the most "dissonant" while a fully unison rhythm as the most "consonant", a spectrum can be drawn between the two polarities with the phasing process helping to arrive and depart between the two.
3) Phasing and the Palindrome: Cycling through all possible pattern combinations using the phasing technique will naturally produce a palindromic form, with its second half mirroring the first as an inversion of itself.  The phasing technique in its pure form implies a form of relative dualism in which the process causes the two instrumentalists to trade "roles" with one another.
This article will use simplified 1-to-4 note examples as a way to clarify the mechanics behind the process of phasing, and will be using Steve Reich's Piano Phase as a primary musical example of the technique put into a performance context.
It is hoped that the ideas presented in this paper are self-evident in that it simply clarifies the mechanics that exist behind the process of musical phasing.  The theories presented here have been thoroughly tested by musicians (both with and without classical training) and have remained consistent throughout a wide variety of contexts and applications.  The examples listed here have been simplified in hopes of allowing for the reader to perform them and hear the results for themselves.  In cases where identical instruments are not available, octave displacements can be used as a way to get a close approximation of the effect.  (All of the examples listed here should be reproducible on any keyboard instrument.)
It is important to note that while phasing allows for musicians to generate a greater amount of material from smaller source samples, what results from the process is neither infinite nor random.  Harmonic shifts in phasing processes follow a pre-determined pattern which is finite, at least on the level of the abstract.  Because the phasing process follows a fairly strict palindromic form, it is also possible for listeners to anticipate harmonic combinations after its midway point, due to the fact that the second-half is an exact inversion of the first.

The "freedom" and "choices" given to the performers during these processes can be found in its duration, i.e. how long the performers decide to "sit" on one pattern before moving onto the next.  In this sense, Reich's process-oriented music shares a similarity with the experimental music tradition (and to a lesser extent, integral serialism) in their interest in using duration as a method of formal organization.   In the case of the minimalists however, the question performers may have to ask to themselves is "how many times do we repeat", as opposed to "how long".


1. Pitchfork.  "Interview: Steve Reich, by Joshua Klein,"  Pitchfork, http://www.pitchforkmedia.com/article/feature/39540-interview-steve-reich.


Copyright 2009, Ryan Tanaka.  All rights reserved.  Contact email: ryant at ryangtanaka.com.


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