Apple Commercials and Musical Minimalism

by Thomas Brett

Apple computer makes magnificent TV ads for its products: the commercials are visual case studies in sleek minimalism, computer or iPhone set again a pure black or white background, a disembodied hand showing the viewer just how simple it is to work with this technology.  Carefully chosen music is part of what makes Apple’s commercials so effective, and in the ads for two recent products–the iPad tablet computer and the second version of the Macbook air laptop–we hear two pieces that to my ear at least, riff off of a very famous piece of musical minimalism: Steve Reich’s 1978 work Music for 18 Musicians.

The music for the iPad commercial is the first minute of a piece by Chilly Gonzales called “Never Stop.”

Gonzales (real name: Jason Beck) is a Canadian pianist, producer and songwriter who lives in Paris.  “Never Stop” is one of 15 songs from his recent album “Ivory Tower.”  The piece begins with a steady pulse in a four feel (or meter) played on shakers, with polyrhythmic finger snaps layered on top.  Ten second in, the main piano riff enters: a 9-note repeating pattern that steps through just three pitches (tonic, flat-3rd, 4th).  Rendered poetically you can hum the pattern as: bum, bum, bum, bum-bum bum, bum, bum-bum (!)  About 20 seconds in, a second piano playing in a higher register comes in with a counter rhythm that plays against the 4/4 feel–in fact, it makes it feel as if the whole piece is simultaneously in a slower-moving three feel.  (That’s the kind of weird perceptual work polyrhythms can do for the listener . . .)  Tucked in just behind the second piano is a third piano part that seems to come around every 5 beats or so, further blurring our sense of the music’s metric feel.  Things are getting dense!  Then, around 42 seconds, Gonzales introduces some strong hand claps on beats 2 and 4, bringing our ears back to the ground and anchoring the music in the 4 feel once again.  This is pop after all.

Listening to this piece (actually it’s just the first minute of a 4:49 song), I hear a whole lot of Section II of Reich’s Music for 18.

Reich’s sections unfold at a slower rate, but listen to the repeating patterns and whole flow of it; Gonzales really took one out of Reich’s book.  Even Gonzales’ use of patterns in different meters is a technique Reich has been using for decades.

Reich’s Music for 18 also makes itself felt in the music for the Macbook Air commercial.

The music for this ad is an original piece composed by Mophonics Music, a company that has scored for ads for Adidas, Reebok, AT&T and Sony.  In this 30-second spot, you can hear a piano part that begins with a single chord and begins to pulsate and multiply into higher registers.  To my ear, the music, although at a slower tempo, is reminiscent of the opening “pulse” section of Reich’s Music for 18.

So: What is the connection between musical minimalism and sleek computers?  Composer John Adams once said that he heard minimalism as a reaction to living with machines and maybe there is some truth to that.  Maybe Apple understands this connection.

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