You Could Do Something with That

A reader suggests that the fragment of Steve Reich’s Piano Phase that I heard blip by on NPR might have been from a Nonesuch disc called Reich Remixed, an album of DJs playing around with various Reich recordings. It wasn’t; the piece on that disc that riffs off Piano Phase uses the actual sampled recording of two pianos, whereas what NPR flashed by was a synthesizer version, with glitzy electronic timbres, that had to have been completely reprogrammed. But to prove my memory hadn’t misled me I listened to Reich Remixed for the first time since just after it came out a couple of years ago, and I’m glad I did. Because when I first heard it I thought it was a stupid disc, and I felt guilty about that because I think I’m just too old – 47, after all – to understand the whole DJ/remix phenomenon. Today, I still think it’s a stupid disc, and in the meantime I’ve grown too old to feel guilty for thinking something’s stupid.

The problem is that Reich Remixed comes across as blatantly condescending to Reich’s music. It’s as though the DJs listened to Piano Phase, Proverb, Music for 18 Musicians, and other fantastic Reich pieces and thought, “Hey, that’s kind of nice. You could do something with that: add a backbeat, layer some vocals over it, it’d start to sound like real music. Then you could sell it.” They were honoring Reich, sure, and having fun playing with someone else’s notes, but in their bells-and-whistles variety is an element of implied criticism, that Reich’s gradual processes and additive forms aren’t sufficiently interesting by themselves.

This pop response to postclassical music – “Hey, you could do something with that” – is, it seems to me, not uncommon. (As Stockhausen similarly told Morton Feldman, “Your music could be a moment in my music.”) The music that comes out of the various streams of minimalism, in particular, is pretty and restful, or maybe brooding and unusual, but too eccentric and austere for the pop ear. “If only the composer could have thought of more things to do with it.” And pop musicians, devoting lifetimes to the 3- to 5-minute song form, seem to focus on timbre and sound quality, and miss the large-scale formal processes classical composers build their music around. (The converse is also true: classically trained composers, myself notably included, often show less sensitivity to details of sound quality than pop musicians.)

That’s why I quit teaching my course American Music After Minimalism. For years and years I had yearned to teach this class, to have a chance to pass down everything I know about the Downtown scene, to lecture to fascinated students about the exact repertoire that I’m the leading expert on. But when I finally had the chance, I was very disappointed. For after every piece I played, whether Robert Ashley, Diamanda Galas, Glenn Branca, Annea Lockwood, Eve Beglarian, Mikel Rouse, didn’t matter – the piece would end, and a student’s hand would shoot up. “Yes?”, I’d inquire. Invariable response: “I know a rock group sounds just like that.” “Welllllll,” I’d indulge dubiously, “why don’t you bring in the recording and we”ll listen to it.” And the kid would, and it would inevitably be some band that would start with a 20-second intro that sounded just like Ashley, or Diamanda, or Branca, etc., and then the drums would come in and the conventional song would take off and sound like any other pop song. I would patiently try to explain (while feeling that all was already lost if explanation were needed) that there’s a decisive difference between opening a pop song with a 20-second weird drone and making a 90-minute-long piece of music that consisted of nothing else but a weird drone, like Alvin Lucier’s Music on a Long Thin Wire. But my experimental-rock-obsessed students couldn’t seem to think formally, or in increments longer than a minute: a sound was a sound, and if they’d heard that sound before, well, my new-music composers weren’t really any better than their favorite pop groups.

And maybe they’re right. Maybe the austerity of postclassical music is neurotic in some way. Maybe it’s due to some mental or personal deficiency that we can listen to Lucier’s voice slowly become indistinguishable over 45 minutes, or Ashley’s calming voice mutter nonsequiturs for three hours, or for god’s sake La Monte Young doodling on a bizarrely out-of-tune piano for six hours. But some of us feel a deep need to go out into a vast musical desert where we can commune with a sound or a process or a tuning and really get into it, and we don’t want the route cluttered up with convenience stores and shopping malls. For many of us, the large-scale course of the piece is precisely the point, even (or especially) if it goes nowhere. We don’t need distraction: we need focus. We don’t need backbeats and chord progressions and the familiar accoutrements of everyday music to keep us from feeling like we’ve left home. With varying intentions and success, those Reich Remixed DJs did to Reich’s music what the planners of Staples business supply stores do, make every store have exactly the same process and layout so that you never have to face the anxiety of being somewhere unfamiliar.

But the postclassical music I love most goes to the ends of the earth, through impenetrable forests and across harrowing mountain gorges, to take you to someplace far from daily life where you’ve never been before. And if most listeners taking that trip would feel compelled to set up 7-11s and Starbucks’ along the way to make the route seem more consumer-friendly, I guess it’s just as well that we don’t often bring them along with us.