music for 18 minds

with each day that passes i can feel perceptual shifts inside of me, inside of this world. while they are indebted largely to the presences of new musical and artistic ideas in my mental sphere, i am noticing that thought as a process of discovery is becoming clearer and clearer, more purposeful, even more optimistic. i wish i could say it is through some personal strength found on my own but no, it is from willful immersion, soaking in ideas fresh out of oblivion. how else do i open myself up to possibility?

i can't keep up with the changes of the mind, but life gets its infinity from such things, does it not?

i like to think that it does.

still ruminating on the thought of what it means to be an artist and how to even reconcile one's self as one when you are perpetually unconvinced.

Cy Twombly
"Scenes from an Ideal Marriage" 1986 *

the beginning of this, dare i say it, romantic (though not in any way related to the Western art movement) phase began with a work. a masterpiece. something that, were i to claim it as my own (an idea that actually seems grossly unholy), would be sufficient to define my whole life as transcending a typical existence.

the piece is Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians. Reich was an American composer who dedicated his life to things that truly inspired him. the definition of a composer. he didn't really teach, as he felt it would take away from his creative energies. he took odd jobs that had nothing to do with composition, really, until he was able to sustain himself purely on composing and performing his own music (an artist's dream in this society).

the work was completed during 1974-1976 and lacked a traditional score for 22 years due to it being primarily a collaborative creation between ensemble and composer, in turn preserving the work largely as a sort of oral tradition. i followed the admittedly challenging score throughout the piece's entire duration one day and could hear the audible cues that Reich often talked about, the ones that link him to his main influences - West African drumming and Balinese gamelan, where the head drummer/rhythm-keeper in a collective is in charge of cuing sections. Reich was incredibly interested in the idea of music-making as a gradual process (he wrote a manifesto of sorts on the idea in 1968, Music as a Gradual Process, which served to distinctly voice his chosen ideals and laws regarding composition), one that didn't attempt to conceal factors of the music's structure and mystery from its listener.

to me, it seems like he arrived at these ideological conclusions of his purely by accident, or by a chain of events that did not intend to result in his becoming a revolutionary musical thinker. he began experimenting with tape loops, first, realizing that by allowing two electromechanical elements to play a small fragment of original music simultaneously, naturally-occurring intervals will begin to form between the two, something that he would call phasing. this concept followed him throughout his entire compositional career and i would say shaped a large amount of his artistic thought, but he left the tape loops far behind once he began experimenting with how to reproduce this "natural" process in a live setting. this, he found, could be achieved in two ways: by instructing performers to play a compositional fragment simultaneously at first but then slightly faster in one voice, thus naturally changing by varying degrees the space in between them; or, as i believe was most directly influenced by the Eastern music traditions mentioned above, objectively syncopating the musical lines by placing and displacing beats. tapes were still used in some of his other compositions but i believe he really liked the process of constant metaphormosizing, and the span of his life's work underwent changes due in part to his environment and to his own maturation.

Music for 8 Musicians is separated into 14 or so sections all based around 11 chords. these chords are then elaborated upon by various groups of instruments including pianos (4 of them!), voices, clarinets, strings, vibraphones, marimbas, and xylophones, throughout the entire duration of the piece - around 55 minutes. each group of instruments that is dependent on human breath is instructed to time their phrases exactly as long as it takes to draw a breath, with a natural crescendo to the middle providing those alluring "waves" of sound you hear. there is a rhythmic spine to the piece in the low notes but also in the constantly-pulsing percussive instruments, but with all of the changing sections which highlight varying instrument groups i feel a sense of controlled timelessness (Reich made a point to say in an interview that there is no chance in his music, none).

it is structural music, as a friend pointed out, but i find it meditative in a really intellectual way. you aren't hypnotized into a state hazy confusion, you are witnessing pure rhythmelodical (what a wonderful word) expression that, i believe, truly exemplifies Reich's desire to create a sound that is at once process and sounding music. i can't stop listening.


* i know nothing about this artist but i love visual art that does not attempt to construct our known reality, but rather portrays something completely indifferent to us, something almost unrecognizable. it shows that the mind can create worlds untouched by learning and evolution using something as simple as color, something as mechanical as physical motion. mindless creation that is entirely mindful. rejecting what the brain wants to see, what it wants to construct. at least that's what i believe is happening here.

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