Yoknapatawpha Crossing

Things I Thought I Knew (But Actually Didn’t)

with 2 comments

The Morning News is a very good online magazine type thing that I sometimes read, and one of their contributing writers is named Andrew Womack. He has written several lists of Top Ten Albums, and since I am trying very hard to avoid working on an end-of-the-quarter project, several hours of my day were wasted going through his lists and “obtaining” a good chunk of the albums he likes.

Are the quotes necessary there? Do you know what I mean? I didn’t do anything illegal, because that would be illegal. I just obtained the albums.

One of the albums he likes is Steve Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians,” which is one of the albums I obtained. (You like how I linked to Amazon, so you too can obtain the album? Legally. Just trying to keep you honest.)

Now, I hadn’t particularly been looking for any Steve Reich. I knew who he was. He was a minimalist. We had learned about them in that history of music class I took back in the day. The teacher was like, “John Cage, man, he came out and just sat down at the piano, and he didn’t play a goddamn thing! For, like, two minutes!

I thought, “I could have done that.” Another guy in the class said “I could have done that” out loud, so he got credit for the joke.

We listened to some Ligeti, which I thought was very pretty, and we listened to Varèse’s Poème électronique, which I thought was not pretty at all, and we listened to George Crumb’s Black Angels, which I thought was awesome, and we listened to Steve Reich’s Tehillim, which I thought was… flat. We did all this in one class, so none of us thought too hard about it.

So that quarter of a class was what I knew about minimalism for a long time. Then, I saw The Exorcist, and my opinion of minimalism did not improve.

Looking through Womack’s lists of post-punk prog-rock bands I had never heard of, Steve Reich was a name I at least recognized. But I knew I didn’t like him, so I was thinking I would skip over that one, even though he was pretty high on the list.

Then I thought, you know, I kind of like that album that Eno and David Byrne did, and I really like Eno’s “Another Green World,” and people call that ambient, which is kind of like minimalism, and if I don’t track down a copy of this album I have to go back to making notes about theta rhythms in the hippocampus, and I don’t know what either of those things are, so I better track this album down.

It was a short time later that I discovered that I don’t know a damn thing. About theta rhythms or about music. “Music for 18 Musicians” surrounds you.



And now that I’ve written about this subject as though I were informed, I am going to go read the Wikipedia article about it.

[UPDATE] Dude, we totally listened to Come Out by Reich in that class I took too. That was some crazy shit. We also listened to that piece where two pianists play the same repeated phrase very slightly out of phase, so over the course of 10 or 20 minutes they make a complete cycle. Math dork heaven.


Written by Daniel Grady

March 4, 2007 at 04:00

Posted in Music

2 Responses

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  1. Grady… As much as I’ve studied this stuff, I still don’t buy it. There is something fundamentally reversed about this musical process. Music, has always been done aurally…. like… “uuhg uuuuhg uuuuhhhhggg, yeah that sounds good.” Then it is practiced, listened to, refined, listened to, modified, listened to, changed again, etc! Only then would some crazy theorist come along and attempt to plug in some generalizing theories about this type of music. The mathematical music era (I guess is what it’s called?) is the exact opposite. It STARTS with a generalizing theory for a type of music that doesn’t exist yet and then just spits out notes. That‘s backwards as hell man! Where‘s the expression? How do you play music that says “beep like an alarm clock for 15 seconds at random intervals“ musically!!?? I mean… seriously?! That’s stupid as hell! I’m pretty sure my TI-89 could create a symphony that sounds like someone dropping a Studebaker onto a pile of shopping carts. I could be rich! All I have to do is slap Schoenburg on the top of the page, say I found it in an attic, play it for an audience on crystal meth, and roll in the dough! BUT… where’s the ‘music’? I dunno. Maybe you can explain it to me…

    yo mutha

    September 10, 2007 at 11:16

  2. So first off, I completely agree with you about Schoenberg, as you can see in this post. My problem with Schoenberg is the same one you have, the same one that most people seem to have: his system strips emotion from the process of composing, resulting in works that are incapable of making a connection with the listener. No amount of clever juxtaposition or structural entanglement can make people care enough about music to love it.

    However, Reich is not like Schoenberg, or at least Music for 18 Musicians isn’t like Gavotte in G. Reich did not, according to my admittedly cursory research, compose his piece without any idea of what it should sound like, or what he wanted the listener to experience. He did use techniques that give his music a very regular, repetitive quality, but that doesn’t mean his music lacks emotionality. Look no farther than blues to see that repetition and regularity don’t imply a lack of emotion.

    On the contrary, Reich’s framework, despite being incredibly regular over short intervals, evolves very slowly during the piece, and it is exactly these slow and almost unnoticeable changes that make it sound organic and beautiful to me.

    Schoenberg sought to essentially recreate part of mathematics, in that he developed a set of rules for manipulating symbols in a regular and structured way, but unlike mathematics his manipulations were also essentially meaningless. Reich’s techniques and aesthetic choices certainly move his music away from the sound of traditional classical music, but by no means do they invalidate his work.


    September 24, 2007 at 20:27

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