The Desert Music is a composition by minimalist composer Steve Reich, written between 1982 and 1983 and based on the The Desert Music and Other Poems by William Carlos Williams. The piece is made up of five movements and lasts nearly forty minutes but it’s the first few minutes of the first movement that always caught my ear:

(skip to 31 minutes in if they time-coded embed doesn’t work)

I was always always fascinated with the outlining harmony, which is a jarring, pulsing array of chord swells. It has impossibly close-voiced chords that bucked so much of what I’d been taught about harmony, with its ambiguous tonal centre and plentiful dissonance. I decided I had to work out what was going on.

The five-chord cycle is spread across four flutes, two pianos, a choir, string section and marimbas. Obtaining a digital copy of the score was harder than it should have been (and I sure as hell wasn’t going to try and transcribe it by ear) but I managed to find a copy on Boosey & Hawkes. These harmonies aren’t the easiest to describe in terms of chord names we’re familiar with. Some of them are so richly extended they use almost every scale tone in their given mode.

Firstly, let’s look at the original loop. I’ve divided the composite sound into five major groups: the flutes, the piano, marimba (originally composed for two pianos and two marimbas but they play a mirrorlike ping-pong rhythm so I’ve simplified it), the choir and finally the string section. Let’s start off with the flutes.

N.B. The original is in 6/4 time and each chord lasts between four and five bars. This is just a simple reduction to make it easier to read and understand the context and overall tonality. I’ve also included the notes spelled out for those of you who don’t read music. You may notice that the key signature changes in bars 2-4 to Ab and the last bar is in C.

Flutes

The flutes are playing cluster chords in their middle register, though it’s worth noting the second and third chords are more widely spaced. Notice how the first and last chords are the same, but will be re-contextualised by other elements of the ensemble. We start of with an F add9-looking chord, moving a tone down to Eb add9 in the second measure. Next there are two chords with no real major/minor feel and finally that F add9 again.

Chord 1: F  G  A C
Chord 2: Eb F  G Bb
Chord 3: Eb F    Db
Chord 4: Eb Ab   Db
Chord 5: F  G  A C

Marimba

In a register close to the flutes, the marimbas play similarly simple harmonies. We also see a Bb introduced with the first chord, making me think that it shouldn’t be read as an F chord (the major 3rd and 4th degree aren’t often used together). At the moment it’s unclear what it could be.

Interestingly there’s an A natural in bar three, which might suggest a movement away from the implied Ab.

Chord 1: Bb F  G A
Chord 2: Db F  G Bb
Chord 3: Db Eb F A
Chord 4: Db Eb F Ab
Chord 5: C  E  F A

Piano

This is where it starts to get a little complicated. We see a Db added to the first chord and, with the doubled A octave in the left hand, we can safely assume our scale looks something like A, Bb, C, Db, E, F and G – not a million miles away from the altered scale.

The bassline, A, C, Eb, F and D, can perhaps give us some clue as to the root notes of the chords, and it leads me to believe that the fifth chord is a D minor.

Chord 1: A  G Bb Db E  F A
Chord 2: C  G Bb Db Eb F Bb
Chord 3: Eb G A  Db Eb F Bb
Chord 4: F  G A  Db Eb F Ab
Chord 5: D  G A  C  E  F G

Choir

The bass is reaffirmed by the choral ensemble; other than that we don’t learn anything new. The upper soprano voices mimic the flutes.

Chord 1: A  G Bb Db G  C  F  A
Chord 2: C  G Bb Db F  Bb Eb G
Chord 3: Eb G Ab Db F  Bb Eb F
Chord 4: F  A Db Eb Ab Db Eb Ab
Chord 5: D  F C  E  G  C  F  A 

Strings

The string section covers the largest register, in particular the first violin which reaches an F two octaves above middle C. We can see much more clearly that our last chord is like a Dm9/11, containing the G, E and C.

Chord 1: A  G Bb Db F  A  Bb G  C   F
Chord 2: C  G Bb Db F  Bb C  G  C   Eb
Chord 3: Eb G Bb Db A  Bb Db F  Bb  Db
Chord 4: F  G Ab Db Eb A  Db Eb G C Eb
Chord 5: D  G A  C  E  F  G  C  G C E

There You Have It

steve reich the desert music

There are some things of note. The last chord is almost a Dm chord and it leads back to the first chord in the cycle, a Gø7/A, which is a v I progression of sorts (please be aware I am simplifying these voicings). Gø is the vii of Ab, and chords two, three and four sit in this key.

It’s hard to be reductive about exactly what’s happening here: these harmonies weren’t designed to be played with two hands on a piano and even my best attempts at encapsulating Reich’s orchestration lost something when being forced to sacrifice clusters of tones.

Using these type of chords in your own work is not as easy as copying and pasting them in; careful attention has to be paid to how you’re going spread such dense clusters over different voices and timbres.

Part of what makes this work is the claustrophobic voicing in each group of instruments. Each taken on its own doesn’t really tell the whole story. What I love about this progression is its cyclical nature. Before obtaining the score, I really struggled pointing out the first chord, not knowing whether or not it was a four, five, six (or longer) chord sequence.

Reich is well-known for his minimalist compositions built on simple rhythmic ostinatos that gradually shift in phase over long segments of time, but I think his harmonies sometimes go unnoticed, or at least don’t attract the same attention.

It’s worth looking into other works of his from the same period: (Music for 18 Musicians from 1978 is a great starting place, as it has similar rhythmic and harmonic makeup; and, of course, his seminal Different Trains from 1989 for tape and string quartet. But perhaps my favourite composition of Reich’s aside from The Desert Music is his Electric Counterpoint, written for Pat Metheny.

Steve Reich - The Desert Music