Dennis Kam

Dennis Kam's Thesis from 1974

Repetition and the Drift Towards Constant Focus in the Pattern-Pulse Works of Terry Riley and Steve Reich

By Dennis Koon Ming Kam

Mus. B., Oberlin College, 1964
M.F.A., University of Hawaii, 1966 

Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Musical Arts in the Graduate College of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1974, Urbana, Illinois.


I would like to express my gratitude to Professor Benjamin Johnston for his valuable help in the preparation of this study and to other members of my doctoral committee--Professors Charles Hamm, Salvatore Martirano, Paul Zonn, Morgan Powell--for their support of my work. l would also like to thank Mr. John Van der Slice for copying the musical examples in Chapter 4 and for the many informal conversations concerning repetition and change in music, all of which have stimulated a number of the ideas contained in this study. Finally, special thanks to Miss Cynthia Chun, whose typing of the first draft of my writing enabled me to meet many awesome deadlines. 


In a time when change seems to be the only thing we can take for granted in our existence, it is always hazardous and often unrewarding to speculate about any current state of affairs, especially where it will lead to, if we expect to attain any sort of permanent or absolute point of view. Any attempt to establish a permanent outlook on things would seem to be futile in light of the incredibly rapid as well as constant flux that has so permeated the 20th century. This ever-present flux has even caused a great many in scholarly circles to question the validity of speculation. In the field of history, for example, the growth, development, and influence of critical philosophy of history in the 20th century have come about as a result of contemporary skepticism regarding more speculative approaches of earlier historians. Thus, in the philosophy of history today, two main divisions emerge: speculative and critical. Although one of the primary reasons for the development of critical philosophy of history is often associated with the influence of 19th century Positivism, it would not be inconceivable to assume that the infringing presence of flux may have also contributed significantly; it should have certainly provided a more fertile ground for this development. Similarly, the trend towards critical thought has also occurred in philosophy, especially exemplified in the inception and influence of Logical Positivism of the Vienna Circle in the development of British Analytical Philosophy--more specifically, Linguistic Analysis or the Ordinary-Language movement.

No doubt, if we are looking for permanence and absolute certitude, there will be definite shortcomings to speculative notions--no matter what field we deal with. However, speculation could prove to be of value, these shortcomings notwithstanding. For one, it could supply a substitute, if not at least a quest, for some kind of certainty. In any event, we would be begging the question if we were to expect certainty in speculation for by nature our views on the past, present, and future would not have the status of being speculative were it the case that they were founded on a high degree of probability and certainty. Secondly, speculation can be valuable in contributing a means by which to gain a foothold on an otherwise treacherous ground where only con-fusion might prevail and where any kind of orientation, no matter how transient, would be helpful for further thought and action. Thirdly, speculation could possibly furnish a route to new avenues which could, in effect, prevent stagnancy caused by entrenched modes of thought.

In light of the foregoing, it should be first stated that many aspects of this study will fall within the domain of speculation--especially since many of them have not yet been documented, let alone firmly established. When possible, of course, first-hand sources will be used to strengthen speculative hypotheses. Nevertheless, many conclusions, in particular, will still be dependent upon a high degree of speculation. It is hoped that they will not lose any significance because of their speculative status and that what may be considered liabilities will, in turn, also be acknowledged as strengths.

In general, this study investigates the phenomenon of repetition as found in some recent music--in particular, the "pattern-pulse" works of Terry Riley and Steve Reich. The pervading belief of this study is that there has been a new and awakened interest in the use of repetition. Like many other parameters which have gained special attention in the 20th century, repetition has emerged as a prominent feature in much of the music of the last decade or so. In order to show this trend, a large portion of this study will be a comparison between pattern-pulse, serial, and aleatoric works.

It will be necessary to warn that this study is not an attempt to establish repetition as a necessary or sufficient characteristic of music or, for that matter, an ingredient for "good" music. Interesting and fundamental as they are, these issues, at most only implicit in discussions, lie beyond the confines of this study and might be more adequately dealt with in another study devoted exclusively to them. In general more attention will be given to description. It should also be noted that this study does not pretend to establish principles applying to all of the existent music in the last decade. Rather, investigation will be applicable only to those works which exhibit a seemingly strong predilection for the use of repetition. This study might suggest, however, that our usual modes of listening, performing, and composing could potentially be enhanced or altered in some way with a new awareness of the fundamental force of repetition.

Table of Contents

  Repetition and the Avant-Garde
  Repetition in the Context of Change and Pluralism
  Repetition, Serialism, and Chance
  Summary and Conclusions

  Objective Time
  Subjective or Psychological Time
  Music and Its Relationship to Conceptions of Time

  The Concept of Information
  Redundancy and Pattern-Pulse Works

  Repetition as a Unifying Factor
  Repetition and Temporary Focus
  Repetition, Constant Focus, and the Expanded Present


VITA  99 

Download Dennis Kam's complete thesis as PDF
Dennis Kam