Phase-shifting process music as an analogue for social identitity: or, re-thinking intersectionality via “It’s Gonna Rain”

So, I’m working on am argument that social identities (race, gender, etc.) are mutually constitutive, and that metaphors of “intersection” and “blending” don’t accurately capture the ontology of social identities (as mutually constitutive). As a part of the argument, I offer an alternative metaphor/image/illustration – Steve Reich’s theory of process music. This is 100% a WORK IN PROGRESS, so I would really extra super-duper appreciate any feedback!

Steve Reich’s theory of “process music,” particularly as exhibited in his early phase-shifting pieces, is a useful metaphor, or even analogue, for the phenomenology of social identities. There are (at least) two features of phase-shifting process music that also accurately characterize the lived experience of coincident social identities: (1) the absence of a macro-level formal structure that is independent and determinative of micro-level events, and (2) the predominance of indeterminate, “irrational” relationships that we tend to perceive only when they briefly coalesce into “landmarks.”

First, process music is characterized by its lack of predetermined, overarching structure: a piece’s large-scale, general structure piece evolves or emerges from a sequence of micro-level events in which each new event follows from neither the previous event nor from some overarching plan. The macro-structure of a process piece is generated by its micro-structure insofar as the two are identical: as K. Robert Schwartz explains, “in Reich, structure cannot be a framework which supports an unrelated façade of sounds; rather, sound and structure must be identical.” In Reich’s terms, musical processes “determine all the note-to-note (sound-to-sound) details and the overall form simultaneously.” Take, for example, Reich’s first phasing piece, It’s Gonna Rain. In this piece, Reich loops a snippet of found sound (an excerpt from San Francisco street preacher Brother Walter’s sermon on Noah – and the sound of a pigeon flapping its wings in the background – that Reich recorded in Union Square in 1964), and records two identical tapes full of these loops. The tapes are placed on two identical players, and they begin in complete unison, repeating the vocal “It’s gonna rain!” over and over…until eventually, due slight variances in the playback speed of the two recorders, the two tapes move very gradually but increasingly out of synch. “As the process of phasing progresses,” Schwartz explains, “new and unexpected polyrhythmic configurations, resulting harmonic combinations, and melodic patterns evolve, since the two channels of tape constantly change their relationship to one another” (Schwartz, 384). Particularly in the Reich phasing pieces that utilize tape, the unpredictable and irregular behavior of the tape players make it impossible to predict exactly how the “note-to-note details” will unfold – there is no logic or regularity to it (e.g., the phasing of windshield wipers). In other words, there is no overarching structure to a process piece because the micro-level evolution of the piece is, to a certain extent, random. The gradual increase of one track’s speed does not occur at a consistent rate; it has no measured or measurable tempo or meter.

Because the rate of time-shifting of a phase piece is both inconsistent and very, very gradual, most of the piece consists in “irrational” relationships between the two tapes. That is to say, the shifting doesn’t occur at easily-recognizable intervals: it doesn’t jump along by thirty-second note intervals (or eight-note intervals, or any regular, measurable interval), but speeds up gradually, continually, and irregularly. A majority of the time, the two tapes are somewhere between a recognizable interval apart; they sound out of synch, but this out-of-synchness is not metered. This is the main way a phase-shifting piece differs from a canon or a round: in these formats, the different voices or (in a fugue) subjects are separated by regular intervals (e.g., a measure or a beat). In a phase piece, most of the time the voices are between recognizable intervals; it doesn’t sound like a pattern, but like garbeldygook. There are, however, brief moments when the voices lock into a recognizable relationship. As Paul Epstein explains,

During phasing the ear will identify certain discrete landmark situations – the splitting of a unison, the doubling of tempo at the midpoint. Even though it is apparent that these have been arrived at gradually, the ear identifies them within only a narrow margin of error, and this results in a feeling of abrupt change…In such cases the discontinuity is purely perceptual, the actual change being merely one of degree.”

Discrete social identities are like the “discrete landmark situations” in a phase piece. We see these “landmark situations” (i.e., separate social identities) as individual only because of our perceptual habituation to see them as such. There is a certain point at which we perceive “race” or “gender” as the most prominent feature of an experience, but that is only because this specific configuration of events has arrived at an arrangement we have pre-identified as a “landmark”. But, these landmarks aren’t really, experientially, landmarks. We tend to perceive them as determinate (indeed, Reich uses the term “rational”) points in an otherwise indeterminate (what Reich calls “irrational”) morass. Most of a phasing piece consists of the indeterminate or “irrational” parts; the “rational” parts are transient. We should imagine social identities similarly: their relations to one another are indeterminate and “irrational” – we can’t pick them apart, they don’t come into clear focus. With social identitites, we tend to take these momentary, transient “landmark” as representative of the entirety of experience, when, in fact, they are anything but representative of the vast majority of our experience.
Social identities are not lived as separate or separable. Our bodies do not “have” a race or a gender, but it is also true that social identities are not merely conceptual entities that have no purchase on corporeal experience. Thus, in the same way that process music lacks overarching form separate from its sound-to-sound details, there is no pure, distilled, generalizable concept of “race” or “gender” that can be broadly applied to a range of phenomena. Each articulation of race proceeds as an articulation of gender, class, sexuality, nationality, bodily ability, and so forth. Our social identities are the “unexpected resulting patterns” (Schwartz, 387) from our repeated yet constantly evolving interaction with our social and material environments. We “compose” what we, upon reflection, understand as our social identities from the micro-level unfolding of our experiences in the particular bodies we have, inhabiting our specific contexts.

You can listen to “It’s Gonna Rain” at about 3:10 in this video: