Process music

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Basic rhythm from Clapping Music by Steve Reich, which is played against itself. First in rhythmic 'unison', then with one part moved ahead by an eighth note, then another, and so on, till they are back together--an example of Nyman's process-type 4. Play (help*info)
first two patterns, abbreviated Reichrhythm.gif
Basic rhythm from Clapping Music by Steve Reich, which is played against itself. First in rhythmic 'unison', then with one part moved ahead by an eighth note, then another, and so on, till they are back together—an example of Nyman's process-type 4. Loudspeaker.svg Play   first two patterns, abbreviated

Process music is music that arises from a process. It may make that process audible to the listener, or the process may be concealed.


Primarily begun in the 1960s, diverse composers have employed divergent methods and styles of process. "A 'musical process' as Christensen defines it is a highly complex dynamic phenomenon involving audible structures that evolve in the course of the musical performance ... 2nd order audible developments, i.e., audible developments within audible developments". [1] These processes may involve specific systems of choosing and arranging notes through pitch and time, often involving a long term change with a limited amount of musical material, or transformations of musical events that are already relatively complex in themselves.

Steve Reich defines process music not as, "the process of composition but rather pieces of music that are, literally, processes. The distinctive thing about musical processes is that they determine all the note-to-note (sound-to-sound) details and the overall form simultaneously. (Think of a round or infinite canon.)". [2]


Although today often used synonymously with minimalism, the term predates the appearance of this style by at least twenty years. Elliott Carter, for example, used the word "process" to describe the complex compositional shapes he began using around 1944, [3] [4] with works like the Piano Sonata and First String Quartet, and continued to use throughout his life. Carter came to his conception of music as process from Alfred North Whitehead's "principle of organism", and particularly from his 1929 book, Process and Reality . [5]

Michael Nyman has stated that "the origins of this minimal process music lie in serialism". [6] Kyle Gann also sees many similarities between serialism and minimalism, [7] and Herman Sabbe has demonstrated how process music functions in the early serial works of the Belgian composer Karel Goeyvaerts, [8] especially in his electronic compositions Nr. 4, met dode tonen [with dead tones] (1952) and Nr. 5, met zuivere tonen [with pure tones] (1953). Elsewhere, Sabbe makes a similar demonstration for Kreuzspiel (1951) by Karlheinz Stockhausen. [9]

Beginning in the early 1960s, Stockhausen composed several instrumental works which he called "process compositions", in which symbols including plus, minus, and equal signs are used to indicate successive transformations of sounds which are unspecified or unforeseeable by the composer. They specify "how sounds are to be changed or imitated rather than what they are to be". [10] In these compositions, "structure is a system of invariants; these invariants are not substances but relations. ... Stockhausen's Process Planning is structural analysis in reversed time-direction. Composition as abstraction, as generalization. Analysis of reality before its entry into existence". [11] These works include Plus-Minus (1963), Prozession (1967), Kurzwellen , and Spiral (both 1968), and led to the verbally described processes of the intuitive music compositions in the cycles Aus den sieben Tagen (1968) and Für kommende Zeiten (1968–70). [12] [13]

The term Process Music (in the minimalist sense) was coined by composer Steve Reich in his 1968 manifesto entitled "Music as a Gradual Process" in which he very carefully yet briefly described the entire concept including such definitions as phasing and the use of phrases in composing or creating this music, as well as his ideas as to its purpose and a brief history of his discovery of it.

For Steve Reich it was important that the processes be audible: "I am interested in perceptible processes. I want to be able to hear the process happening throughout the sounding music. ... What I'm interested in is a compositional process and a sounding music that are one and the same thing". [2] This has not necessarily been the case for other composers, however. Reich himself points to John Cage as an example of a composer who used compositional processes that could not be heard when the piece was performed. [2] The postminimalist David Lang is another composer who does not want people to hear the process he uses to build a piece of music. [14]


Michael Nyman has identified five types of process: [15]

  1. Chance determination processes, in which the material is not determined by the composer directly, but through a system he or she creates
  2. People processes, in which performers are allowed to move through given or suggested material, each at his or her own speed
  3. Contextual processes, in which actions depend on unpredictable conditions and on variables arising from the musical continuity
  4. Repetition processes, in which movement is generated solely by extended repetition
  5. Electronic processes, in which some or all aspects of the music are determined by the use of electronics. These processes take many forms.

The first type is not necessarily confined to what are normally recognised as "chance" compositions, however. For example, in Karel Goeyvaerts's Sonata for Two Pianos, "registral process created a form that depended neither on conventional models nor ... on the composer's taste and judgment. Given a few simple rules, the music did not need to be 'composed' at all: the notes would be at play of themselves”. [16]

Galen H. Brown acknowledges Nyman's five categories and proposes adding a sixth: mathematical process, which includes the manipulation of materials by means of permutation, addition, subtraction, multiplication, changes of rate, and so on. [17]

Erik Christensen identifies six process categories: [18]

  1. Rule-determined transformation processes
  2. goal-directed transformation processes
  3. indeterminate transformation processes
  4. Rule-determined generative processes
  5. goal-directed, and generative processes
  6. indeterminate generative processes

He describes Reich's Piano Phase (1966) as rule-determined transformation process, Cage's Variations II (1961) as an indeterminate generative process, Ligeti's In zart fliessender Bewegung (1976) as a goal-directed transformation process containing a number of evolution processes, [19] and Per Nørgård's Second Symphony (1970) as containing a rule-determined generative process of a fractal nature. [20]

Notable works

As Slow as Possible (1987)[ citation needed ]
Sonata for Cello and Piano (1948) [21]
String Quartet No. 1 (1950–51) [22]
String Quartet No. 2 (1959) [23]
Double Concerto for Harpsichord and Piano with Two Chamber Orchestras (1959–61) [24]
Piano Concerto (1964–65) [21]
Duo for Violin and Piano (1974) [25]
Piece for Four Pianos (1957) [26]
Nr. 1, Sonata for Two Pianos (1950–51) [16]
Nr. 4, met dode tonen (1952) [27]
Nr. 5, met zuivere tonen (1953) [28]
Piano Transplant No. 1. Burning Piano [29]
I Am Sitting in a Room [30]
It's Gonna Rain (1965) [31]
Come Out (1966) [31]
Reed Phase (1966)
Violin Phase (1967)
Piano Phase (1967) [32]
Phase Patterns (1970) [33]
Drumming (1971) [33]
In C (1964) [34]
Keyboard Studies [34]
Les Moutons de Panurge (1969) [26]
Kreuzspiel (1951) [35] [9]
Kontakte [36]
Plus-Minus (1963) [37]
Mikrophonie I (1964) [37]
Solo (1965–66) [37]
Prozession (1967) [38]
Kurzwellen (1968) [39] Kohl 2010 , 137)
Aus den sieben Tagen (1968) [40]
Spiral (1968) [41]
Pole (1969–70) [42] )
Expo (1969–70) [41]
Für kommende Zeiten (1968–70) [43]
Ylem (1972) [44]
Michaelion, scene 4 of Mittwoch aus Licht (1997) [45]
Poem (1960) [26]

See also

Related Research Articles

Karlheinz Stockhausen German composer

Karlheinz Stockhausen was a German composer, widely acknowledged by critics as one of the most important but also controversial composers of the 20th and early 21st centuries. He is known for his groundbreaking work in electronic music, for introducing controlled chance into serial composition, and for musical spatialization.

In music, serialism is a method of composition using series of pitches, rhythms, dynamics, timbres or other musical elements. Serialism began primarily with Arnold Schoenberg's twelve-tone technique, though some of his contemporaries were also working to establish serialism as a form of post-tonal thinking. Twelve-tone technique orders the twelve notes of the chromatic scale, forming a row or series and providing a unifying basis for a composition's melody, harmony, structural progressions, and variations. Other types of serialism also work with sets, collections of objects, but not necessarily with fixed-order series, and extend the technique to other musical dimensions, such as duration, dynamics, and timbre.

Karel August Goeyvaerts was a Belgian composer.

Nummer 2 for thirteen instruments is a composition written in 1951 by the Belgian composer Karel Goeyvaerts.

Kontra-Punkte is a composition for ten instruments by Karlheinz Stockhausen which resolves contrasts among six instrumental timbres, as well as extremes of note values and dynamic levels, into a homogeneous ending texture. Stockhausen described it: "Counter-Points: a series of the most concealed and also the most conspicuous transformations and renewals—with no predictable end. The same thing is never heard twice. Yet there is a distinct feeling of never falling out of an unmistakable construction of the utmost homogeneity. An underlying force that holds things together—related proportions: a structure. Not the same Gestalten in a changing light. But rather this: various Gestalten in the same light, that permeates everything".

Kreuzspiel is a composition by Karlheinz Stockhausen written for oboe, bass clarinet, piano and four percussionists in 1951. It is assigned the number 1/7 in the composer's catalogue of works.

Formula composition is a serially derived technique encountered principally in the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen, involving the projection, expansion, and Ausmultiplikation of either a single melody-formula, or a two- or three-voice contrapuntal construction.

<i>Aus den sieben Tagen</i>

Aus den sieben Tagen is a collection of 15 text compositions by Karlheinz Stockhausen, composed in May 1968, in reaction to a personal crisis, and characterized as "Intuitive music"—music produced primarily from the intuition rather than the intellect of the performer(s). It is Work Number 26 in the composer's catalog of works.

<i>Tierkreis</i> (Stockhausen)

Tierkreis (1974–75) is a musical composition by the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. The title is the German word for Zodiac, and the composition consists of twelve melodies, each representing one sign of the zodiac.

<i>Klavierstücke</i> (Stockhausen)

The Klavierstücke constitute a series of nineteen compositions by German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen.

Punctualism is a style of musical composition prevalent in Europe between 1949 and 1955 "whose structures are predominantly effected from tone to tone, without superordinate formal conceptions coming to bear". In simpler terms: "music that consists of separately formed particles—however complexly these may be composed—[is called] punctual music, as opposed to linear, or group-formed, or mass-formed music", bolding in the source). This was accomplished by assigning to each note in a composition values drawn from scales of pitch, duration, dynamics, and attack characteristics, resulting in a "stronger individualizing of separate tones". Another important factor was maintaining discrete values in all parameters of the music. Punctual dynamics, for example

mean that all dynamic degrees are fixed; one point will be linked directly to another on the chosen scale, without any intervening transition or gesture. Line-dynamics, on the other hand, involve the transitions from one given amplitude to another: crescendo, decrescendo and their combinations. This second category can be defined as a dynamic glissando, comparable to glissandi of pitch and of tempi.

Intuitive music is a form of musical improvisation based on instant creation in which fixed principles or rules may or may not have been given. It is a type of process music where instead of a traditional music score, verbal or graphic instructions and ideas are provided to the performers. The concept was introduced in 1968 by the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, with specific reference to the collections of text-notated compositions Aus den sieben Tagen (1968) and Für kommende Zeiten (1968–70). The first public performance of intuitive-music text compositions, however, was in the collective work Musik für ein Haus, developed in Stockhausen's 1968 Darmstadt lectures and performed on 1 September 1968, several months before the first realisations of any of the pieces from Aus den sieben Tagen.


Kurzwellen, for six players with shortwave radio receivers and live electronics, is a composition by Karlheinz Stockhausen, written in 1968. It is Number 25 in the catalog of the composer’s works.

<i>Spiral</i> (Stockhausen)

Spiral, for a soloist with a shortwave receiver, is a composition by Karlheinz Stockhausen, written in 1968. It is Number 27 in the catalogue of the composer's works.

Sonata for Two Pianos (1950–51), also called simply Opus 1 or Nummer 1, is a chamber-music work by Belgian composer Karel Goeyvaerts, and a seminal work in the early history of European serialism.

Prozession (Procession), for tamtam, viola, electronium, piano, microphones, filters, and potentiometers, is a composition by Karlheinz Stockhausen, written in 1967. It is Number 23 in the catalogue of the composer’s works.

<i>Pole</i> (Stockhausen)

Pole (Poles), for two performers with shortwave radio receivers and a sound projectionist, is a composition by Karlheinz Stockhausen, written in 1970. It is Number 30 in the catalogue of the composer's works.

Nummer 5 met zuivere tonen is a musical work by the Belgian composer Karel Goeyvaerts, realized at the WDR Studio for Electronic Music in 1953 and one of the earliest pieces of electronic music.

<i>Expo</i> (Stockhausen)

Expo, for three performers with shortwave radio receivers and a sound projectionist, is a composition by Karlheinz Stockhausen, written in 1969–70. It is Number 31 in the catalogue of the composer's works.

<i>Für kommende Zeiten</i>

Für kommende Zeiten is a collection of seventeen text compositions by Karlheinz Stockhausen, composed between August 1968 and July 1970. It is a successor to the similar collection titled Aus den sieben Tagen, written in 1968. These compositions are characterized as "Intuitive music"—music produced primarily from the intuition rather than the intellect of the performer(s). It is work number 33 in Stockhausen's catalog of works, and the collection is dedicated to the composer's son Markus.


  1. Seibt, Johanna, ed. (2004). Process Theories: Crossdisciplinary Studies in Dynamic Categories. Dordrecht and London: Kluwer Academic Publishers. p. xiii. ISBN   9781402017513.
  2. 1 2 3 Reich, Steve. 2002. "Music as a Gradual Process (1968)". In his Writings about Music, 1965–2000, edited with an introduction by Paul Hillier, 9–11. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. p. 34. ISBN   978-0-19-511171-2 (cloth); ISBN   978-0-19-515115-2 (pbk).
  3. Edwards, Allen. 1971. Flawed Words and Stubborn Sounds: A Conversation with Elliott Carter. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. pp. 90-1.
  4. Brandt 1974, pp. 27–28.
  5. Bernard 1995, pp. 649–650.
  6. Nyman 1974, p. 119.
  7. Gann, Kyle (24 February 1987). "Let X = X: Minimalism vs. Serialism". The Village Voice : 76.
  8. Sabbe 1977, pp. 68–73.
  9. 1 2 Sabbe, Herman. 1981. “Die Einheit der Stockhausen-Zeit ...: Neue Erkenntnismöglichkeiten der seriellen Entwicklung anhand des frühen Wirkens von Stockhausen und Goeyvaerts. Dargestellt aufgrund der Briefe Stockhausens an Goeyvaerts”. In Musik-Konzepte 19: Karlheinz Stockhausen: ... wie die Zeit verging ..., edited by Heinz-Klaus Metzger and Rainer Riehn, 5–96. Munich: Edition Text + Kritik. pp. 18–21.
  10. Griffiths, Paul (2001). "Aleatory". In Sadie, Stanley; Tyrrell, John (eds.). The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (2nd ed.). London: Macmillan. ISBN   9780195170672.
  11. Fritsch 1979, pp. 114–115.
  12. Kohl, Jerome. 1978. "Intuitive Music and Serial Determinism: An Analysis of Stockhausen's Aus den sieben Tagen ." In Theory Only 3, no. 2 (March): 7–19.
  13. Kohl 1981; Hopp 1998.
  14. Brown 2010, p. 181.
  15. Nyman 1974, pp. 5–8.
  16. 1 2 Griffiths 2011, p. 38.
  17. Brown 2010, p. 186.
  18. Christensen 2004, p. 97.
  19. Christensen 2004, p. 116.
  20. Christensen 2004, p. 107.
  21. 1 2 Brandt 1974, p. 28.
  22. Brandt 1974, p. 28; Griffiths 2011, pp. 62–3.
  23. Schiff 1998, p. 73.
  24. Bernard 1995, p. 668.
  25. Schiff 1998, pp. 117–119.
  26. 1 2 3 Nyman 1974, p. 5.
  27. Sabbe 1977, pp. 68–70.
  28. Sabbe 1977, pp. 70–73.
  29. Oteri 2004.
  30. Nyman 1974, p. 92.
  31. 1 2 Nyman 1974, p. 134.
  32. Nyman 1974, p. 133.
  33. 1 2 Nyman 1974, pp. 132–133.
  34. 1 2 Nyman 1974, p. 7.
  35. Griffiths 2011, pp. 40–41.
  36. Griffiths 2011, pp. 160–162.
  37. 1 2 3 Kohl 1981, p. 192.
  38. Fritsch 1979; Kohl 1981, p. 192.
  39. Hopp 1998, passim; Kohl 1981, pp. 192–226.
  40. Kohl 1981, pp. 227–252.
  41. 1 2 Kohl 1981, pp. 192–193.
  42. Kohl 1981, pp. 192–193; Kohl 2010, p. 138.
  43. Kohl 1981, pp. 227–232.
  44. Kohl 1981, p. 232.
  45. Kohl 2010, p. 139.


Further reading