Dissertation Index

Author: Ross, Martin

Title: Gesture in Steve Reich's Music and its Signification: A Referential Approach to His Process, Stylistic, and Postminimalist Works

Institution: University of Western Ontario

Begun: January 2020

Completed: November 2022


Previous music-theoretical scholarship on minimalist music, especially formalist analyses, have primarily investigated the rhythmic and melodic connections spanning the entire work. The analytical uncovering of the genre’s compositional scarcity (i.e., small motifs, repetition, slow and gradual change) through formal means has resulted in few novel analytical approaches and, consequently, an attitude that minimalist music itself is resistant to analysis.

This dissertation, both in its methodological basis and applied analyses, reconceptualizes minimalist composer Steve Reich’s music such that it deemphasizes the quantifiable properties in favour of its qualifiable ones. The works themselves serve as representations of Reich’s compositional activity. One way to conceptualize this activity is “energetic shaping,” the definitive quality behind Robert Hatten’s theory of musical gesture (Hatten 2004). This dissertation explores the signification underlying Steve Reich’s music, primarily through a semiotically grounded theory of musical gesture.

Three different eras in Reich’s compositional output will be examined. His early works of the 1960s focused on bringing an audible process to the listener’s attention. In the 1970s, Reich focused on the rhythmic pattern as he developed his musical style. In the 1980s, the works began sharing similar compositional attributes. These three decades make up his process music, “stylistic” music, and postminimalist music, respectively. The gestures found in these eras are represented by a definitive feature of the work and inferred by the subject of interest. Concerning the former, Reich’s unique musical processes, the rhythmic pattern, and previous analyses are the representative features of interest. Concerning the latter, the listener, performer, and analyst are the ones to deduce the significance underlying each era. The result of this dissertation is an improved understanding of Reich’s music and a new referential perspective that shows minimalist music being open to analysis rather than resistant to it.

Keywords: Steve Reich, minimalist music, postminimalist music, process music, referentialism, gesture, semiotics


Chapter 1. Introduction: On Minimalist Music, Analysis, and Approach
1.1 Literature Review: Favoured Towards Formalism
1.2 Referentialism
1.3 Semiotics
1.4 Chapter Summaries

Chapter 2. The Minimalist Aesthetic: Gesture in Reich's Process Music
2.1 Process Music
2.2 The Listener
2.3 Gesture
2.4 Listening to a Gradual Process in Melodica
2.5 Musical Forces: Pendulum Music and Four Organs
2.6 Conclusion

Chapter 3. The Minimalist Style: Articulate Gestures in Reich's Stylistic Works
3.1 Reich's Minimalist Style
3.2 Performance Practice in Reich's Music
3.3 Gesture
3.4 Music for Pieces of Wood
3.5 Drumming
3.6 Conclusion

Chapter 4. The Minimalist Technique: Signifying Analyses of Reich's Postminimalist Works
4.1 Postminimalist Music
4.2 Gesture
4.3 The Analyst
4.4 Bolstering Pattern Significance in New York Counterpoint
4.5 Analytical Possibility in The Desert Music
4.6 Conclusion

Chapter 5. Conclusion and Further Research
5.1 Recap
5.2 Implications and Contributions
5.3 Future Research


Martin Ross

     Return to dissertations