I first heard Steve Reich’s music in the early 1990s when I was studying music at the University of Toronto. At a used record store I bought an LP of his Six Marimbas and Sextet, and a CD of his early tape pieces, Come Out and It’s Gonna Rain. The music sounded otherworldly—as if half-human, half-machine—and it was all about the pulse. On Six Marimbas and Sextet the marimbas and vibraphones sounded like MIDI sequences, so precisely were their polyrhythms calibrated and performed. The tape pieces were etudes in feedback loops and mutation, sounding like they had spun far outside the composer’s control. What impressed me most about Reich’s music though, was that I wasn’t sure what I was feeling as I listened to it. There was nothing Romantic about it, nor was it concerned with expressiveness in any sense I was familiar with. Yet the music had undeniable power, a listen to the process kind of power.
While music critics and theorists have been writing about the pulse-based music of American composer Steve Reich for several decades now, until recently there existed no insider’s account of how the music works, the experience of playing it, and how its rhythmic complexities connect to the structures and aesthetics of other, non-Western musical traditions. Russell Hartenberger’s Performance Practice in the Music of Steve Reich (Cambridge University Press, 2016) is an uncommonly clear distillation of Reich’s music based on the author’s forty-five years of close association with the composer as a percussionist in his ensemble as well as archival research (at the Paul Sacher Stiftung Research Center in Basel, Switzerland). The book is focused “through a percussion lens”, reflecting Hartenberger’s interests in “Western and non-Western music, rhythmic theory, and minimalism” (xxiii). Hartenberger examines Reich’s early compositions Drumming, Music for 18 Musicians, and several other works “from the point of view of a performer and looks at the ways a musician might think in order to play rhythms accurately and with a good sense of time” (ibid.). These works provide the book’s impetus and framework. Moreover, Reich’s music “represents a nexus of ideas” that circle around questions about rhythm: “What makes a rhythm interesting? What makes music rhythmically engaging to listen to and to perform? How does one develop the ability to play rhythms accurately and with a good sense of time? What goes on in my mind and body when I play rhythms?” (7-8). These questions are answered over the course of the book, and they ground Hartenberger’s excursions into related areas of fascination including musical time, rhythm perception, percussion musics from West Africa, South India, and Indonesia, and philosophy (particularly Wittgenstein). There is a wealth of material here that will be of interest to fans of Reich, minimalist music, percussion performance pedagogy, and more broadly, to readers (like me) interested in the connection between music and body-mind wellness. Performance Practice is a probing and practical study that is both informative and inspiring. If you’re a drummer or percussionist, you’ll want to get hold of this book!
Listening back on the era now, especially to works the so-called minimalists, it’s as though the 1960s and 70s experimental music scenes were searching for ways out of the expressivity box—as if there was something un-modern about the Romantic conception of creativity. I hear Reich’s early music as if it was proposing alternate ways of being through sound. In his book, How To See, the artist David Salle suggests a rationale for artists leery of self-expression: “From 1958 to the late ‘60s, many roads artistic were headed in the direction of removing or a least minimizing the subjective as an organizing principle. This was happening not only in art but also in music and literature…A lot of serious-minded people wanted to avoid the trap of self-expression, and the trivializing narcissism it implied” (110).
The story begins with Hartenberger describing how he met Reich through a serendipitous confluence of events, his world music studies at Wesleyan University (particularly West African and South Indian musics; Hartenberger wrote his dissertation on the rhythms of mrdangam, a South Indian drum), a research trip to Ghana, and forming the pioneering (and still active) Nexus percussion ensemble. It was during this time that he began forging a career that combined his training in Western and non-Western musics. “I realized that the study of non-Western music would help me in my understanding and performance of rhythm in Western music and that the study of the performance techniques of these non-Western instruments would give me insight into the skills necessary to improve my performing abilities on Western percussion instruments” (7). In the spring of 1971, Hartenberger began commuting from Middletown, CT to New York City to attend Reich’s weekly rehearsals for Drumming, a piece-in-progress that the composer was teaching to musicians by rote at his Soho apartment. In Chapter 1, Drumming, early days, Hartenberger recounts these rehearsals, the musicians involved, as well as premieres and early tours to Europe. Among the details of equipment and personnel, there are interesting sub-sections describing what would become enduring themes. For instance, Hartenberger recounts how he occasionally practiced yoga with Reich during this time, and noticed the composer’s interest in the counting aspect of yogic breathing exercises and their potential musical applications. “This was the first time I had ever thought about why music, at least most of Western music, was created with eight as its base” (12). Hartenberger interweaves recollections of this period with research on Reich’s composing sketchbooks from the early 1970s. In Chapter 3, The process of composing Drumming, we learn how Reich came up with the core rhythmic pattern for Drumming as well as its “resultant” patterns that emerge from this core like perceptual sonic gestalts. Hartenberger shows how notation experiments documented in the sketchbooks reveal that “Reich’s development of the Drumming pattern was at least as much an evolution as it was a revelation” (42). The sketchbooks chart how Reich “tried out different resultant pattern possibilities” (ibid.), writing notes to himself on ideas to pursue. One note reads: “‘a series of short drumming all starting from the same place going to different conclusions or reduce by eliminating resultant figures then add by phasing’” (43). Here, as elsewhere in his book, Hartenberger locates the tantalizing bits (including photos of sketchbook pages) to illustrate the lengths Reich went to systematically think through the possibilities of his core pattern and the potentials of his music. In one passage, the composer advocates for the virtues of Drumming’s acousticity by comparing it to electronic music, which, he says, “doesn’t have the emotional depth that instrumental sound has…” (45).
Reich’s pulse-based music sounds like it was conceived on a grid—like sequenced music made without sequencers. It brings to mind the work of visual artists such as Sol LeWitt who also worked with grid forms (cubes). In her 1979 article, “Grids”, the art critic Rosalind Krauss says that grids express spatial and temporal modernity in twentieth century visual art. Krauss provides many examples of grids (such as the work of Agnes Martin), and suggests that they convey a specific stance towards the world. “As we have a more and more extended experience of the grid” she notes, “we have discovered that one of the most modernist things about it is its capacity to serve as a paradigm or model for the antidevelopmental, the anti narrative, the antihistorical” (64).
In Chapters 4-7, Hartenberger discusses the four sections of Drumming in more detail. The first section is scored for tuned bongos played with sticks. Hartenberger explains how Reich settled on bongos and decided on what pitches to tune them to. In part, these decisions were pragmatic: bongos were widely available percussion instruments with an ideal, mid-register tuning range, below which they sound slack and unfocused. Of the several qualities of Drumming that make it a sui generis achievement, the most important is its compositional austerity: all of its parts are derived from a single eight note core pattern played over twelve pulses. Drumming is literally a musical process in which this pattern is built up and down repeatedly through various canonic relationships over the duration of the piece. Hartenberger explains how this core pattern was conceived and assigned to four drummers playing four sets of bongos, and shares his strategy for conceptualizing the build of up of Drumming’s pattern as “as each attack is added to the pattern” (57). This will be of particular interest to percussionists struggling with how to hear the rhythm as they play it. Learning Drumming from Reich by rote, without notation, taught Hartenberger to think “of all the patterns in the piece in a more abstract but also more visceral manner than if I had learned it from notation” (60). He reminds us that freedom from notation “is one of the keys in the development of highly sophisticated rhythmic systems in the music of many non-Western cultures” (ibid.). The second section of Drumming is scored for marimbas and women’s voices—a scoring decision Reich decided upon after having aurally hallucinated (!) the sound of women’s voices singing resultant patterns over the sound of marimbas while he was composing. The third section moves to a higher register and is scored for glockenspiel, whistling, and piccolo. The fourth section combines the instruments from each of the preceding sections to create a dramatic finale. The full piece takes about one hour to play.
An interesting quality of Drumming is that while its process design may have roots in Reich’s 1960s tape experiments, its realization as a compellingly organic piece of music could have only happened with the help of the skilled musicians who played in Reich’s ensemble. These musician in effect learned how to adapt a machine aesthetic to rhythm.
Chapters 8-10 consider the acoustics of Drumming, the anatomy of a phase, and matters of performance practice. Acoustically speaking, Drumming is fascinating for how it produces multi-layered and polyrhythmic sound clouds. Hartenberger explains how the attack sounds of sticks and mallets on the bongos, marimbas, and glockenspiels “become acoustical phenomena that accompany the pitches that are played on the instruments and duplicated by the voices” (90). As for the science of these acoustical phenomena, musical instrument designer and fellow Reich ensemble percussionist Garry Kvistad hypothesizes possible causes, including the presence of “difference tones” (91). “I think the reason Steve’s music has so much of [difference tones] flying around” Kvistad notes, “is due to the abundance of consonant intervals” (ibid.). A second quality that makes Drumming unique is that it incorporates a rhythmic displacement (i.e. canonic) technique Reich calls “phasing”, in which one musician ever so slight speeds up his playing against that of another musician who maintains a consistent tempo. Phasing produces a momentary out-of-sync-ness that eventually leads to a new, out-of-phase rhythmic relationship between the two parts. In chapter 10, Hartenberger describes in detail how he approaches phasing his parts in Drumming, including what he thinks about while playing, and little tricks for keeping himself on track such as always feeling the first note of his pattern as beat one (95-98). In what is perhaps the book’s most suggestive sentence, Hartenberger says, “I sometimes stay in an irrational relationship for a while if I feel comfortable there” (97). If you have played Drumming, or have listened to it and wondered about how the musicians are keeping it all together when they phase, this irrational relationship idea aptly captures the perceptual chaos of being out-of-sync mid-phase—that is, between the safety of two well-defined rhythmic relationships. Next, the chapter outlines eight common mistakes musicians make when phasing, such as losing track of beat one or going too far in a phase (100-102). The chapter also shares the results of a lab experiment on phasing. For the experiment, Hartenberger and percussionist Bob Becker performed phasing sections from Part I of Drumming with sensors attached to their bongos to chart the exact timing of their drum strokes. The study’s timing analysis, notes Hartenberger, “confirmed my feeling and Becker’s contention that he pushes slightly when I phase in order to create time resistance, and my feeling that I push and pull during phasing” (106).
I’m obsessing on this point a bit, but to what extent was Reich’s phasing inspired by technological malfunction? The composer once explained how the idea crystallized when one of his reel to reel tape recorders went out of sync with the other, creating a slithering, echoing sound. The process of tape machines going out of sync generated a kind of impersonal, electronic expressivity—an acoustic fact in need of a perceptive composer to notice its musical potentials!
In chapter 10 Hartenberger considers performance practice minutiae of Drumming. He begins by explaining his thinking about dynamics, tempo, and attack placement. Prior to playing the first note of Drumming, Hartenberger primes himself with a series of questions (thirteen in total) to prepare for the music about to unfold (119). The last of these questions is the most probing: “Am I prepared to subjugate my ego and let this first attack sound by itself with my arm functioning only as the instigator of the sound?” (ibid.) Reading this section I learned about the extent to which Drumming requires its musicians to simultaneously focus and give themselves up to the flow of the piece. Once Hartenberger has sounded the first drum attack of the piece, a new series of questions present themselves. He explains how he draws on both his training in Western percussion, specifically Fred R. Hinger’s notion of time and motion, and his understanding of non-Western aesthetics, specifically the Japanese concept of ma or silence. “Through this externalized technique of moving my sticks and hands in a constant motion in the precise amount of time it takes to arrive at the next attack, I am able to internalize ma and thus shape the line of the phrase” (123). These moments of thought fusion are among the book’s most revelatory, showing its author constantly synthesizing lessons from the varied terrain of his musical life. Hartenberger also considers issues of hand patterning and phrasing (126-132) in Drumming by explaining Reich’s fascination with George Lawrence Stone’s snare drum book, Stick Control, and compares the process of learning and teaching Drumming with his experiences learning and teaching West African drumming. Drumming and West African drumming are similar in several respects: they are learned by rote, they are built out of polyrhythms, and they make complex perceptual demands on the percussionist.
The term minimalism has often been used to describe the music of LaMonte Young ,Terry Riley, Reich, Philip Glass, as well as the work of various painters and sculptors. But minimalist style may have been merely a surface by-product of other, deeper concerns. Reich and Glass demonstrated through their work how seemingly disparate traditions could be synthesized through perceptive analysis and transformed into new acoustic facts. Was minimalist style just a resultant pattern of a thought fusion process?
The most interesting section of chapter 10 considers matters of concentration, endurance, and perception. Hartenberger explains that the performer of Reich’s music faces a unique problem: “the ambiguity in the music creates interest and the repetition can create a meditative state; but these qualities also require the player to develop heightened concentration in order to play the part correctly and still enjoy listening to the sound of the ensemble” (134). One way to cultivate heightened concentration is through focusing on the flow of one’s physical movements. These movements are “a great help, and in many cultures essential, in maintaining a mental time sense while playing rhythms with accuracy” (ibid.). Hartenberger also zooms in on the micro-moments of hand-stick-drum contact, whereby he has “developed an awareness of the connection between my mind and the moment my sticks or mallets actually struck the instrument” (134). I imagine this moment as having a time-slowed-down, Matrix-esque kind of focus, though I’m not sure. Most impressive is Hartenberger’s technique of “energy-shifting”, which he employs to play Reich’s music for extended periods of time without stopping. Originally developed while practicing snare drum rolls, energy-shifting involves focusing on tension spots and then moving them “from one part of my body to another” (137). But concentration and energy-shifting are only part of the puzzle that is performing Drumming. What the percussionist needs to do above all is play repeating parts in such a way to maintain the music’s intended “ambiguity of perception when possible” (146). With Drumming, as with all of Reich’s music, the performing goal is to always create a sense of momentum (138) while at the same time avoiding “the trap of consistency and monotony” (146).
Contrary to all the attention repetition in Reich’s music has received, there is in fact a lot of action and change in it. Sometimes this change is structural (musicians switch from one pattern to another), other times perceptual (you notice something that was there all along). But the end is the same: the music keeps you thinking. In this regard, Reich’s music is a useful metric by which to evaluate other musics. Sometimes I’ll toggle back and forth between a Reich piece and say, a new electronic music track to in order to compare the rate at which the music articulates new ideas. Then I ask myself whether or not the music compels me to think about what is happening in it. Reich’s music sets a high bar for how it answers its own question: What is this music doing as it goes along?
Chapters 11-14 examine some of Reich’s other early pieces, Clapping Music (1972), Music for Pieces of Wood (1973), Six Pianos (1973), and Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices, and Organ (1973). Hartenberger explains how Clapping Music was inspired by Reich’s seeing a flamenco palmas performance at a club in Belgium and realizing that he could score a piece for the musician’s body as percussion instrument. Similar to Drumming, Clapping Music shows Reich devising “a rhythmic pattern that had many of the elements of a sophisticated West African rhythm but was his own creation” (167). Hartenberger also connects Clapping Music to clapping practices in West Africa, applause in Western concert halls, and to other rhythmic uses in the musics of North and South India. In chapter 12 we learn about the genesis, instrumentation, and performance practice for Music for Pieces of Wood, while chapters 13 and 14 consider Six Pianos and Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices, and Organ. I was surprised to learn that Six Pianos is a scaled down version of a piece Reich had hoped to write for an entire piano store (!). The piece, which was eventually adapted for marimbas (Six Marimbas), also marks the first time Reich had composed in 4/4 meter.
When you listen to a number of pieces by the same composer you realize that what they have in common is that which is renewable—the concept, the aesthetic, the technique, or in more poetic terms, all those things combined that produce the music’s distinctive voice. Reich’s sound—his voice—is intimately connected to the processes that unfold in his music. I think it’s this process idea that has proved so influential outside of Western classical music. Case in point: electronic dance music DJ and laptop performances are often structured like unfolding Reich processes. Even the modular “clips and scenes” architecture of music software recalls the one-measure repeating parts of Reich’s early scores.
Chapter 15 considers what is perhaps Reich’s best-loved work, Music for 18 Musicians (1976). The piece is more elaborate in instrumentation and structure than Drumming or Reich’s other early works. In addition to using percussion and voices, it incorporates pianos, woodwinds, and strings. The structure of the piece is also more involved, opening and closing with a series of eleven pulsating chords whose harmonic implications are explored throughout the different sections of the piece. As Reich violinist Audrey Wright puts it, Music for 18 takes the listener on a journey, and “reminds us that the knowledge and the beauty of [the music] are really in the process” (233). The chapter begins with Hartenberger explaining Music for 18’s instrumentation, ensemble members, and initial rehearsals. As with Drumming, Reich composed Music for 18 at the same time he taught it to his ensemble (190). While this suggests a laboratory-like set up where musicians were free to contribute ideas, Hartenberger notes that “very few musical changes from the musicians were suggested or incorporated into the composition” (191). I found this interesting in light of Reich’s early interest in composing music that was non-hierarchical, eschewed soloists and conductors, and was community-oriented. Comments by musicians in Reich’s ensemble suggest that maintaining sole authorship of the music was paramount for the composer. As violinist Shem Guibbory recalls, “You could never say, ‘we wrote this, or we wrote the idea;’ it was not like that” (191).
When any music can be sampled and looped and made the ground for a new compositional figure, what happens to the idea of musical authorship? If creativity is understood as a complex system of cascading feedback loops, where one small change from somewhere in the system can have huge implications down the musical line, is the composer still the composer? (Does it matter?)
The rhythmic engine of Music for 18 is its pulsing marimba and piano parts. We get a sense of the philosophical rigor of Reich’s thinking when he observes that “the pulse is the perfect state containing all patterns” (212). We also learn why it is that in Music for 18 (and other, subsequent pieces) Reich chose to divide the pulsing parts between two musicians. “There’s that buoyancy” [with two musicians] he says in one of the book’s many interviews with Hartenberger, “and with hand alternation it’s a bit leaden and mechanical” (213). Hartenberger explains the complexities of playing the off-beat pulsing part in Music for 18, noting that he is “constantly making minute adjustments in relation to the on-beat in order to keep the subdivision of the beat accurate” (217). Two of his perceptual tricks for keeping his part buoyantly on track: think of the off-beats as “pick-up to the next on-beat rather than a response to the previous on-beat” (ibid.); and “think of the off-beats in larger groupings” (ibid). Despite these tips, playing the off-beat pulsing part is a fiendishly demanding percussive task. (I would certainly prefer to be the “on-beat” percussionist.) In the final sections of the chapter, Hartenberger connects some of the rhythmic complexities of Music for 18 to his experiences with West African drumming. We learn that, according to one of Hartenberger’s teachers, Ghanaian master drummer Abraham Adzenyah, drummers often keep track of the music’s “hidden beat” or “invisible conductor” (228) to orient themselves within the music’s time flow. We also learn about Reich’s interest in the 12-pulse bell pattern for the traditional Ewe drum and dance piece, Atsiabekor. “It’s compelling because it is so ambiguous…After a while you don’t know [where beat one is]” he says (230). Twelve can be divided in multiple ways, which means that different metrical feels “are all possibly present” (ibid.). Drawing on the work of Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887-1920), a mathematician from South India, Hartenberger explains that one reason twelve is a “magic number in rhythm” (ibid.) is that it is a highly composite number.
The pulse as the perfect state containing all the patterns, the hidden beats, the power of ambiguity, the multiple metrical feels all possibly present, the magic numbers in rhythm—all of these qualities of polyrhythmic, pulse-based musics have found their way around the world over the past half century. As the musician and scholar John Collins observes in his film Listening To The Silence, it’s as if sub-Saharan African rhythmic concepts were a perceptual time bomb that detonated inside (and out) of Western music, changing how we hear musical time.
In the book’s final chapter, Inside Rhythm, Hartenberger sums up the significance of Reich’s music in terms of the perceptual effects of its rhythmic designs. His main finding is that of the qualities that make a rhythm musical and interesting to listen to, “perception, ambiguity, and intuition are all intrinsic elements that lie beneath the surface of the music” (235). Each of Reich’s pieces have this rhythmic ambiguity that makes considerable demands on the listener. In his early compositions, Reich used the techniques of phasing, resultant patterns, and building rhythms up and down, one beat at a time, to create changes in rhythmic perception through “gestalt flips” and generate a feeling which Reich calls “magic time” (237). Ultimately, rhythmic ambiguity is the quality that makes magic time magic, and the perceptual in-between-ness of ambiguity, says Hartenberger, “is something that can be created in a composition through technical means” (235). At its most potent, ambiguity can even create a sense of “spirituality in the form of culturally specific musicality” (237). In sum, as I read Performance Practice I was struck by the similarities between its flow and the gradual unfolding of Reich’s music. The smooth surface of Hartenberger’s writing belies the layers of experiential, theoretical, and anecdotal analysis that lie underneath. Like the percussionist drumming out resultant patterns heard in the polyrhythm mix, one phrase at a time, Hartenberger makes a case for the ways in which music “with rhythm as one of its primary structural components can be spine-tingling and beautiful” (239). Performance Practice is a systematic and nuanced unpacking of the thinking, structures, and playing techniques involved in Reich’s early works, leading us “beneath the surface of the music to the joy of rhythmic beauty” (ibid).
“No one ever taught me how to write, and I’ve never made a study of writing techniques. So how did I learn to write? From listening to music. And what’s the most important thing in writing? It’s rhythm. No one’s going to read what you write unless it’s got rhythm. It has to have an inner rhythmic feel that propels the reader forward. You know how painful it can be to read a mechanical instruction manual. Pamphlets like that are classic examples of writing without rhythm.”
“The rhythm comes from the combination of words, the combination of the sentences and paragraphs, the pairings of hard and soft, light and heavy, balance and imbalance, the punctuation, the combination of different tones. ‘Polyrhythm’ might be the right word for it, as in music. You need a good ear to do it.”
-Haruki Murakami, Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa, pp. 98-99.
This post is about how one thing can lead to another. In other words, it’s about process.
I checked my email and opened a newsletter from the online music retailer, bleep.com.
Scrolling through Bleep’s recommendations I found a number that seemed promising, and began downloading them on Spotify.
One release that stood out was a new recording by Murcof called Statea. Murcof (Fernando Corona) is a Mexican musician who makes atmospheric and minimalist electronica. On Statea he teams up with the French pianist Vanessa Wagner to create renditions of piano pieces by Erik Satie, John Cage, Aphex Twin, John Adams, Philip Glass, Arvo Part, and others. It’s a beautiful, hybrid recording. Here is a video overview of the Murcof and Wagner collaboration:
A side note: yes, Murcof’s processing is sonically interesting, adding something significant to the originals. For example, listen around 6:43 to his processing on John Cage’s “In a Landscape:
As I began listening to Statea, I searched online for interviews with Corona and Wagner. My search brought me to headphonecommute.com, a quality source of information about electronic music.
At headphonecommute I noticed an interview with another musician, Yann Novak. (Already I had forgotten that I had been searching for information on Murcof!) Novak’s work explores “notions of presence, stillness and mindfulness through the construction of immersive spaces.” I had never heard of Novak but read the interview anyway, learning about the musician’s thoughtful and thorough composing process. (I particularly like his technique of putting away music for two months and then returning to it.)
While reading the Novak interview I zoomed in on the photo of his studio to take a look at his bookshelf. I noticed a book with the title Notes toward a Conditional Art. It sounded familiar but I couldn’t remember its author.
Ah right, it’s a classic by the artist Robert Irwin. Here is Irwin defining art-making as inquiry: “More correctly, by our commitment to curiosity and wonder we willingly take up a posture of pure inquiry” (222). (I’m re-reading the book now.)
I looked up Weschler’s book on Amazon.com in the hopes of finding something new by him.
Bingo! That’s how, as one thing can lead to another, I came upon Weschler’s forthcoming Waves Passing In The Night, a profile of Walter Murch, a film sound editor turned amateur astrophysicist.
This blog post, then, is about process, but also about sharing the links that make up a discovery chain.
Check out Murcof, Wagner, Irwin, Cage’s “In A Landscape”, headphonecommute.com, Yann Novak, Lawrence Weschler, and Walter Murch.
Art is sort of an experimental station in which one tries out living.
The American experimental composer John Cage once said that he didn’t believe in improvising as a composing technique. The reason is that when we improvise we only play what we already know.
But that has not been my experience. When I improvise—not all that skillfully, usually lost and barely hanging on, but in the moment, connecting my listening with the sounds I’m making—I often encounter novel sound combinations. Contra to Cage, I don’t have the feeling of playing what I already know; in fact, when I listen back to some of these improvisations I find them pleasurably unknown to me—I have no idea about the basis upon which I made decisions in the moment to make the sounds. For me the discovery process inside improvising seems to involve going out on a performance limb and then free-falling. Thinking through it comes later.
So when Cage says he doesn’t believe in improvising, I wonder: Could Cage improvise? Could he elicit sound combinations he found pleasing from instruments in real time, without a definite goal and without recourse to what he already knew? The sound and flow of some of his early pieces such as the beautiful In A Landscape or the gamelan-esque Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano, suggest the composer had some interest in performance before theoretical concerns became paramount. This brings me to another thought: Did Cage perhaps turn his back on improvisation because it didn’t have a place within his rigorously conceptualized system of using chance procedures (such as the I-Ching or rolling dice) as a system by which to organize music? What I find odd is that if Cage believed that “art is sort of an experimental station in which one tries out living”, why wouldn’t he avail himself of improvising, that ultimate living strategy available to us all? Was improvising somehow un-composerly, simply too accessible, too universal, too human?
“To take a work’s psychic temperature, look at its surface energy.”
– David Salle, How To See, p. 15.
David Salle’s How To See: Looking, Talking, and Thinking About Art is a superb collection of writings about understanding visual art in terms of its intrinsic affective qualities rather than in terms of what it may express about the world or how it fits into a popular theory of interpretation. “Theory abounds, but concrete visual perception is at a low ebb” (2) Salle tells us. The author is an accomplished artist himself and in How To See he draws on his experience to engage with the works of a variety of contemporary artists including Edward Lichtenstein, Jeff Koons, Alex Katz, and many others. Salle’s go-to methodology is to notice, as he takes measure of a piece of art, “what it is you actually find yourself thinking about” (7). Questions flow from here: What makes a work of art tick? What makes it good? What makes it interesting? These questions get us on a path to understanding what Alex Katz aptly describes as an artwork’s “inside energy” (5).
For Salle, an artwork’s qualities exist in a form independent from what the artist may have intended. Moreover, the content of the artwork is more than a sum of cultural signs. The central problem of criticism then, is figuring out how to “talk about art without invoking the ‘isms,’ or resorting to generalities” (5). Where do we turn, Salle asks, to find a vocabulary that communicates what it feels like to see? The essays about artists and their art in How To See offer an informed storytelling by an author whose perceptions are grounded in a lifetime of creating. It’s this grounded experience that leads Salle to say that what reveals an artwork’s nature and quality is “the specific inflection and touch that goes into its making” (15). If any artist’s work is a long-term research project to reconcile form and content (69), then so too is the critic’s long-term project a matter of reconciling content with interpretive form as he or she figures out a way to convey art’s ever-delicate balance of aesthetics and mechanics (113).
At the end of How To See Salle includes a list of thought-provoking exercises for anyone wishing to engage more deeply with art. (As I read I of course thought about how these prompts might apply to musical examples.) Here are four of my favorites that deserve wider sharing:
Build your own analogies. For each work of art, make a sentence that begins “This is a work of art that…” and complete the analogy (244).
Compare and contrast. “Compare two works of art that are stylistically similar but of different intensities” (244).
Similes. Describe a work of art with a sentence that begins “This is a work that puts me in the mind of…” (245).
Where would it feel at home? “Imagine ten works of art of diverse styles and give the ideal place where each would be seen” (246).
It may be a bit of a cliché in music to talk about the space between the notes, but it’s a cliché for good reasons and with good intentions.
The space between the notes is where the time of the music is most perceptible. In drumming, for instance, the space between two stick attacks on a cymbal or two hand strokes on a drum can tell you all you need know about the musician’s sense of time. A flurry of notes—cue the drum fill!—can impress, but what reveals time is the space between the onsets of two consecutive sounds.
Can one learn to leave space between notes? I think yes, but this depends on one’s willingness (not ability) to listen to the space to hear what it brings. It helps to have a reason to leave space in the first place. Like clarity. Just give me some space man! I need time to think, so goes the old saying that interweaves space and time.
I’ve been thinking about space recently as I’ve been editing some new music. As it happens, the music does have space in it, in part because its tempo is slow, but editing it has been a lesson in amplifying this already present space. The editing process began with the usual deletion of an accidental note doubling or busy passage here and there to allow what is there and here to be heard more. Standard stuff as far as that goes. But then a last-minute sound substitution (my original sound was buzzing too much) led to its upper register notes sounding thin. So I began deleting these notes (because there was no other way to fix them) and realized to my surprise that the more I took out, the more everything else sounded better. So I kept going. I noticed an unnecessary reverb over here and deleted it. I noticed an unnecessary track doubling over there and deleted that. As Nassim Taleb observes in Antifragile, subtractive knowledge means that “we know a lot more what is wrong than what is right.” Knowledge, he says, “grows by subtraction much more than by addition” (303).
Anyway, I learned something through the process of taking away stuff to create more space in the music. I learned that I was more interested in how the empty spaces were resonating than with any actual silence they might contain. In the empty spaces I heard little traces of the sounds that preceded them—sounds like disembodied chords without attacks, just sustains and releases, vapors and tails without statements and bodies. It occurred to me that this is one of the challenges with composing for the sounds of percussion instruments: often the fact of their sounds being so sharp and fleeting (e.g. a cymbal crash) causes us to miss what the space of the music sounds like in the wake of these sounds. The space between the notes is interesting because it’s the just after part where you have a split second to recall what just happened and anticipate what might yet arrive.
Maybe this is why I keep slowing down the tempo of my music and why editing has become a way to create even more space.