Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Zeitgeist of Repetition: Steve Reich and Little Two

I have not made an official announcement here on the blog, so let’s do it: we are pregnant with Little Two. The feeling is a wadded up ball of excitement, joy, anticipation, stress, and fatigue. Certainly, there is a lot to look forward to. There’s also the downsides, not the least of which is the subtle dread that is attached to the feeding cycle of a newborn. I definitely remember taking my shift on the unenviable 2-3 am feeding time with the Little One a few years ago. Going to sleep was not really an option, but staying awake was nearly impossible.

I dredged the margins of my CD collection looking for albums that were intellectually stimulating enough to keep me awake yet soothing enough to allow her to sleep. I discovered a bunch of really interesting stuff that I had not listened to in a long time, or that I had ever really gotten into for lack of an appropriate setting. I eventually came to look forward to these meditative reprieves in the wee hours listening to jazz, Indian raga, shakuhachi repertoire, and chamber music. It was here that I rediscovered Steve Reich.

Again, for lack of an appropriate setting, I have not revisited Tehilium much since then, but I definitely notice when Reich’s name comes up. It really caught my attention, then, when the inimitable DFW personality and Ten Hands vocalist Paul Slavens cited Music for 18 Musicians as one of his most-listened to albums of all time. In my opinion, Slavens’ advocacy demands respect, and it got the album in my player at the first available opportunity.

I had an idea of what to expect. As is often the case with minimalist compositions, a superficial description of the piece sounds tiresome: an hour’s worth of simple melodies propelled forward by an unwavering, relentless tempo. In practice, however, I was taken aback by how was immediately likeable Music for 18 Musicians is. It is an enthralling journey through an ever-evolving landscape of rippling ostinatos that balances introspection and intellect with the greatest of care.

The piece’s debut recording was released in 1978, and it is somewhat difficult for me to listen to Music for 18 Musicians without thinking of the sequenced textures that would follow in the early 80s. Although I can’t necessarily envision Sting listening to the piece and being inspired to create the intro to Synchronicity I, I do think that the similarities indicate a broader interest in the creative potential of repetition.

This zeitgeist of repetition continues even today. Looping artists like Battles and Nissenenmondai employ it regularly, often with varying results. Music for 18 Musicians stands above, however, due to the intense investment of the performers, which infuses the music with subtle excitement. I don’t see how any contemporary looping musician could approximate the collective concentration that is necessary to play the piece.

A few months from now, Music for 18 Musicians will undoubtedly be floating in the air during our newborn’s late night feeding sessions. I have actually been considering it as one of the first albums she listens to. Her older sister began life listening to Kind of Blue, and by all rights it seems to have worked out pretty well. The Little Two’s life experiences will be completely unique, though, so perhaps starting off on a path distinct from her sister’s is more reasonable. In any case, I feel pretty sure that it won’t be bad for her synapses to hear such fascinatingly organized sound.

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