Bruise Blood: Not Remixing But Reimagining Steve Reich’s “Music for Pieces of Wood”

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Bruise Blood: Reimagining Steve Reich’s ‘Music for Pieces of Wood’ (Transgressive Records) is a wonderful example of a practice of musical interrogation I have noticed popping up here and there over the years in contemporary acoustic and electronic music circles. Instead of merely sampling the past by taking a sonic photo of a musical moment, some musicians and composers are choosing instead to revisit and engage with influential works in a more substantial and sustained way by reimagining them. To switch the analogy, older musics are being studied and manipulated and re-cast like found objects to generate new works through meticulous (re)arrangements. Some examples:

Alarm Will Sound’s arrangements of Aphex Twin

Contact Contemporary Music’s arrangement of Brian Eno’s “Discreet Music”

Pink Freud’s covers of Autechre tracks

Dirty Loops’ jazzy-soulful pop covers (which I wrote about here)

electronic musician Murcof’s chill-inducing version (with Vanessa Wagner) of John Cage’s “In a Landscape”

and this awesome, African music-imbued version of Terry Riley’s “In C” featuring Africa Express (which I wrote about here)

Steve Reich’s music has had its share of versions/covers/homages over the years. There was an official remix album called Reich Remixed, which contains this gem by Nobukazu Takemura

and Tim Hecker uses shards of Reich’s “Piano Phase” in his piece “Live Room” (which I wrote about here)

Bruise Blood is a collaboration between Poliça, an electronic pop group from Minneapolis, and s t a r g a z e, a chamber orchestra from Berlin. (By the way, the co-founder of s t a r g a z e, André de Ridder, is the arranger of Africa Express’s version of Terry Riley’s “In C Mali” above). The music sounds like a cross between ethnographic field recordings, experimental electronica, and Reich’s own works. It reminds me of someone picking through Reich’s audio files on his computer (or maybe his brain?) and finding interesting outtakes that never made it out of the composer’s studio and into a finished piece. The recording is divided into three parts and throughout we hear Reichian signature sounds mixed with new elements: a steady clave timeline sounded by an echo-y tone alternating between two slightly different pitches, a clear 6/12-beat metrical feel, pizzicato strings playing the various clave parts from “Music for Pieces of Wood”, voices singing vocables (as they do in Reich’s Drumming), and low percussive bass rhythm-tones.

Similar to the other examples of musical interrogation in this blog post, Bruised Blood is engaging to listen to and blurs the line between what is live playing and what is computer processed. The project is also a testament to the endurance muscles of Reich’s acoustic music, some of which is now over forty years old.

Here is Reich’s “Music for Pieces of Wood” performed by Nexus:

Here is Part 1 of Bruise Blood:

The Composer

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The process sometimes begins
by imagining an impossible place
remote overlooking the ocean
in Malibu or Majorca or Milos.

The house is white concrete,
all square corners and panorama glass.

The sunlight falls into empty interiors
leaving rectangular shadows that lengthen
as the afternoon ticks by.

The wind sings through open windows,
the ocean below churns itself
into deepest blues
over and over,
a surfscape rumbling.

The lengthening light,
the zephyr melodies and water rhythms
slow your thoughts
into forgetting they had goals.

There is no need for music here,
but your game is making some
on a piano in the empty room,
turning reveries into something else.

No one will hear it anyway
so you sit down and begin to play.

Curating The Week: The Myth of The Chaotic Creative, Jan Swafford, Randy Gibson’s Minimalism

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An article about the myth of the chaotic creative.

“Chandra thinks young artists often need permission to be organised before they can start to do anything about it. ‘I blame it on the Van Gogh biopic. Everyone has seen this trope of the dysfunctional genius so they almost feel like an impostor if they’re not chaotic. I think people fear that if they organise too much they’re going to lose the creative magic, but it’s like a snow globe. It’s contained. It’s swirling around the globe but it’s not swirling around your house.'”

An interview with Jan Swafford.

“My basic assumption is that this music is not some grand abstraction, not an adjunct to a lifestyle, but a special and profound kind of communication among people; its main impact is not intellectual but emotional.

If Susanne Langer is right, symbolic responses are built into us too, so we innately respond to all sound, including music, as if it were a symbol of something. That means, among other things, that instrumental music, without words, is the most intimate and personal kind of symbol, because what you bring to it is what you, in particular, are. That’s true of all art, but I think more so of ‘abstract’ music, which we don’t perceive as abstract at all.”

An article about the minimalist music of Randy Gibson.

“As is sometimes the case with outwardly unvaried Minimalist music, the texture emerges from the overtones, the frequencies that sound above fundamental notes (in this case, those seven Ds on the piano). Mr. Gibson’s electronic design for the piece highlights these naturally occurring acoustic phenomena, making their ghostly quality more easily perceived. By recording his pianist’s playing in real time, and feeding the resonating notes into a laptop hooked up to speakers, Mr. Gibson is able to amplify a series of overtone relationships, pushing them back into the concert hall as the piece very, very gradually progresses.”

Interesting Musicians

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Have you noticed that the interesting musicians make sounds unlike everyone else?

Have you noticed that the interesting musicians move you in ways not measurable?

Have you noticed that the interesting musicians devise one-off musical systems?

Have you noticed that the interesting musicians use old instruments in novel ways?

Have you noticed that the interesting musicians create more affect with fewer sounds?

Have you noticed that the interesting musicians work in the spaces among genres?

Have you noticed that the interesting musicians don’t mind repeating themselves?

Have you noticed that the interesting musicians keep quality ahead of notoriety?

Have you noticed that the interesting musicians side step the easy-listening trap?

Have you noticed that the interesting musicians aren’t virtuosos?

Have you noticed that the interesting musicians resist pleasing you?

Have you noticed that the interesting musicians trust you to follow them?

Have you noticed that the interesting musicians teach you how to care about listening?

Curating The Week: Micromastery, Cultural Appropriation, Prog Rock

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An article (and forthcoming 2018 book) on micromastery.

“A micromastery is a self-contained unit of doing, complete in itself, but connected to a greater field. You can perfect that single thing or move on to bigger things – or you can do both. A micromastery is repeatable and has a successful payoff. It is pleasing in and of itself. It’s the way we learn as kids.”

A thoughtful defense of cultural appropriation.

“Appropriation suggests theft, and a process analogous to the seizure of land or artifacts. In the case of culture, however, what is called appropriation is not theft but messy interaction. Writers and artists necessarily engage with the experiences of others. Nobody owns a culture, but everyone inhabits one, and in inhabiting a culture, one finds the tools for reaching out to other cultures.”

A reassessment of “progressive” rock music.

“Progressive rock was repudiated by what came next: disco, punk, and the disco-punk genre known as New Wave. Unlike prog rock, this music was, respectively, danceable, concise, and catchy. In the story of popular music, as conventionally told, progressive rock was at best a dead end, and at worst an embarrassment, and a warning to future musical generations: don’t get carried away.”

Meta-Review: Metrical Enigmas In Jlin’s “Black Origami”

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Within the borders of electronic dance music as well as beyond it, Jlin’s Black Origami is one of the most rhythmically compelling recordings to come along in a while. Jlin (Jerilynn Patton) is a 20-year producer from Indiana whose music is  influenced by footwork, the kinetic dance and music style from Chicago. Footwork evolved from the fast rhythms of juke and ghetto house music, and is characterized by fast tempos (around 160bpm), heavily syncopated double-time feels (often in the hi hats), triplet-feel cross rhythms, and sub-bass lines. One of footwork’s key music innovators was the late producer DJ Rashad (1979-2014), whose music I have already written about. Rashad’s track “Feelin” is superb:

While Rashad’s “Feelin” has backbeats, most of Jlin’s tracks don’t. And though Black Origami has footwork’s fast syncopations there is something about it that sounds slippery, more open-ended. Why is this? Reviews offer us some clues.

Pitchfork (Andrew Nosnitsky) calls Black Origami “a gorgeous and overwhelming piece of musical architecture, an epic treatise on where rhythm comes from and where it can go.” The music is “all perpetually escalating polyrhythmic tension, a time-stopping barrage of drum rolls and disembodied angelic voices…making the case that rhythm is too infinite, too forceful to be reduced to mere utilitarian functions. It denies listeners the question of, ‘What do I do with this music?’ and forces them to react directly to what it does to them. It’s a pure exercise in sound-as-power, music that has no specific agenda beyond simply making itself felt.”

The Quietus (Ben Cardew) describes the music as “based around incredibly detailed rhythmical invention, where sounds seem to be employed for their metrical, rather than melodic, qualities and rhythms pile on top of rhythms in great shifting eddies of sound, creating beats within beats within beats.” Rhythmically speaking, “Jlin really throws the door open, using percussive sounds that range from marching bands to gongs to tablas” to create “an incredible piece of percussive programming that sounds like someone solving a Rubik’s cube in 5D stereo sound.” (The reviewer goes on to call the music “an astounding orgy of global polyrhythm” which I think is going too far.)

Dusted magazine (Joseph Burnett) describes Jlin’s music as “an adrenaline rush of frenetic djembé-like percussion” while synthesizers, effects and vocal samples “are pitched and distorted in such a way as to become staccato counterpoints to the drums and beat machines.” Resident Advisor (Angus Finlayson) hears “trilling hand drums and tom toms, cowbells and flickering shakers spill out in triplet cascades, punctuated by clipped vocal samples.” Another online source, PopMatters (Andrew Paschal) “focuses on a dueling interplay between organic, Djembe-like drumming and synthetic beats” calling Black Origami “a challenging and demanding, yet wholly edifying, work of rhythmic art.” Meanwhile, the LA Times (August Brown) describes Jlin’s drum programming as taking “snippets from taiko, Bollywood, electronic clangs and soulful Chicago house. It’s intricate and punishing, industrial and artful.” Spin (Britt Julious) notes “unusual time signatures and rapid percussive syncopation” as the music “melds shimmery, New Age wind chimes with ramped up drumline percussion and indecipherable vocal samples.”

Finally, NPR (Piotr Orlov) describes Black Origami as accessing and developing “a rhythmic language informed by both avant-garde street culture and historical tradition.” Jlin’s music is “a brilliant example of contemporary beat programming” that hopes to push beyond simplistic club tropes…The rolls and other tightly wound cornucopia of acoustic and digital percussion remain at its center. Is it West African percussion or are they gnawa rhythms? Is it a military drum corps or an HBCU marching band being referenced?…Is it music for dancing, for listening, or for ritual? In this Jerilynn Patton turns out to be the most Steve Reich-ian of all the electronic producers…”

To me though, the key yet mostly overlooked characteristic of the music on Black Origami is its meter: eleven of the recording’s twelve tracks have a 6/8 or 12/8 metrical feel. In these compound meters, each main pulse in the music is divided and felt as three equal smaller units (e.g. for 12/8 meter: 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10-11-12). Compound meters feel very different from simple meters such as 4/4, popular music’s reigning and unflappable default meter. In having a 6-beat/12-beat feel, Jlin’s music stays slippery and open-ended, sounding more like West African drumming than electronic dance music. Like a spider web, the compound meters on Black Origami catch us in the multiple rhythmic textures and perspectives spun within them. This makes the music perceptually complicated, exciting, and always one step ahead of where you think it will go next.

Here is my favorite Jlin track, “Enigma”:

Curating The Week: David Lewiston, Noise In Analog Music, Improvisation

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An article about world music recordist David Lewiston (1929-2017).

“His tireless search for undiluted indigenous music became more difficult with time and the incursion of electronic instruments. ‘Oh yes, a Tibetan nun and a synthesizer,’ he lamented to Roots World. ‘When I go to the Himalayas, which is an annual jaunt for me, I have to be very careful to remind the musicians: Please! No film music from Bombay!’”

An article (from a book) about the aesthetics of noise in analog music.

“I for one find myself clicking through a good deal of digital music. If it’s online or on my computer, I skip around—I preview tracks, hearing a bit here, a bit there. My digital listening is to signal alone. I hear the notes but not the space between, or the depth below. It’s listening to the surface without the noise.”

An article (from a book) about the value of improvisation.

“Anyone who has played improvisational music with others is familiar with the virtuoso who has great skill and expertise but bad social sensitivity. In performance, he tears into melodic acrobatics, but never listens enough to know when to stop, or hand it over to another player, or modify and adapt to the aural environment. His narcissism undoes his own musicality. And it can go the other way too, since the overly shy improviser never gets courage enough to assert his musical ideas. A psychological balance of humility and hubris facilitate good improvisation, not just in music but in art, science and business.”