On The Wisdom Of Online Listeners: Thinking Through A Performance Of Steve Reich’s “Music For Pieces Of Wood”


Sometimes a piece of music and an exceptional performance of it seem to telegraph to us some of the information we would need to know about what it is, how it works, and its presence in the world. Such may be the case with a rendition of Steve Reich’s “Music For Pieces Of Wood” by the esteemed percussion ensemble Nexus.

Composed in 1973, “Music For Pieces Of Wood” is scored for five sets of tuned claves. One percussionist plays a steady timeline to establish the tempo grid for the piece and keep the other musicians in sync. A second player adds a repeating 12-pulse pattern. The other three players then add to the texture by playing the same yet rhythmically displaced pattern as the second player, building their parts up one note at a time. As the piece unfolds through different variations on this idea, the effect is hypnotic–like a slowly unfolding musical puzzle.

The Nexus performance of “Pieces Of Wood” is from a 1984 concert in Japan and has been viewed on YouTube over 140,000 times. It’s a masterful performance that is seriously unified, controlled, and ritualistic. What I found equally interesting though, were all the viewer comments about the clip. By turns insightful, humorous, analytic, and impressionistic, the comments reflect something of music’s ability to create order, conjure feeling, and embody ideas. Sifting through them, harnessing the collective perception of online listener-viewers, we get a picture of Reich’s music and Nexus’s performance of it as they are responded to by their global audience. Take them or leave them, here are some of the comments:

“Being in the now.”

“This is what white guy rhythm looks and sounds like.”

“The gentleman in the middle is almost superhuman in holding the rhythm.”

“Concentration at the highest level.”

“It works!”

“Amazing rhythmic exercise.”

“Why wood anyone want to listen to this?”

“Wonderful and inspiring how such simple things can create such beauty.”

“There are layers being made gradually, creating a significant shape.”

“Static arrangement gets upside down with a single accent moved.”

“This music makes you wanna dance to it.”

“And finally techno was invented.”

“Sounds like African music.”

“This must take so much concentration.”

“This song is a bit repetitive and a little hypnotic.”

“The guy in the middle is a machine.”

“This is confusing to listen to, trying to keep track of all the rhythms and the different wood sounds.”

“God has truly given humans extraordinary abilities to create extraordinary works […] of direct expression of the vast capability of the human mind.”

“What happens if one of them has to sneeze?”

“I thought I was hearing delay in this…I had to open it in two windows.”

“The concentration required for Reich’s music is cray awesome.”

“The way each [musician] builds the rhythm gives so many interpretations.”

“It seems music but it’s meditation in disguise.”

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