Freestyle: Hearing Steve Reich’s “Mallet Quartet” As NPR Soundtrack Music


Yesterday, while driving back from buying a shower curtain and an orchid (yes, a strange mix*) I turned on NPR, just catching the tail end of Terry Gross’s Fresh Air. Underneath the news, I noticed the familiar pulsing malletwork of Steve Reich’s music. It was a recent piece from 2013 called Mallet Quartet (Part I, Fast, performed by Third Coast Percussion), scored for two marimbas and two vibraphones. As I leisurely drove through Queens–I have the tendency to slow down my driving when I’m listening to the radio closely (and I was also concerned about that orchid in the trunk tipping over)–I listened to about twenty seconds of Reich’s piece with a new acuity, hearing it in a way I hadn’t in all my previous listenings. I wondered: Why did NPR choose this piece? (And not a piece by say, Reich’s minimalist contemporary, Philip Glass?) What does this piece and Reich’s music in general telegraph that makes it useful as a public radio soundtrack?

As I drove it occurred to me that one of the many attractive qualities of Reich’s music is how it foregrounds the rationality of its own unfolding processes. In this way it reminds me of J.S. Bach’s magisterial sequences : the music ticks along like a finely calibrated watch, but that rational ticking is overlaid with ever-changing harmonic tensions. Through repetition, Reich’s music suspends itself upon one dissonant chord after another, each chord animated by marimbas and vibraphones drumming perceptually ambiguous polyrhythms in a twelve-beat meter. The cumulative effect keeps you on the edge of your (car) seat. Listening to Reich, you feel the tension of not knowing how the next sonic calibration will play out.

How these musical details connect to NPR may have something to do with how NPR  conveys its worldview to its listeners. The best of Reich’s music (such as Drumming from 1971, and also Mallet Quartet) sounds timelessly modern the same way Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater house perched over a stream in Pennsylvania still looks fresh. As it happens, Wright espoused an “organic” or environmentally integrated approach to design in which form and function are one and the same. (The phrase “form follows function” is attributed to Wright’s architecture teacher, Louis Henry Sullivan.) This fusing of form and function could sum up Reich’s aesthetic too, whereby the music is always a function of its processes–for example, melodies derive from harmonies derive from inherent rhythms, and also back the other way.

So: maybe the form follows function aesthetic of Reich’s music is homologous with NPR’s presentation of the news? Both are without hype or filler, sticking to the facts and cutting to their respective chases. And both model an unblinking way of experiencing the world as complex, wondrous, fraught, yet ultimately knowable. It’s as if they’re assuring us: We’ll get you to the bottom of this music, this story. And that they do.

Or maybe I’m reading too much into it?


(*The shower curtain-orchid mix reminds me of Isidore-Lucien Ducasse’s surrealist juxtaposition of “the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella.”)

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