A tape is interesting when it’s an interesting tape


“We may observe that a four-part canon reveals its structure (because it is easy to hear the four successive entries of the theme) but also conceals it, in that it is near-impossible to hear all four parts simultaneously. So also the kolam reveals itself as constructed out of four superimposed figures, but just how, we cannot be certain. Drawing and music and dance tantalize our capacity to deal with wholes and parts, continuity and discontinuity, synchrony and succession.” -Gell 95

To pick up on the John Cage note… I’ve actually been thinking recently about certain kinds of electronic music and minimalist music in the context of thing theory, in terms of how the conditions of composition and performance prompt questions of who/what is a viable agent. Steve Reich’s idea of music as a process seems particularly relevant to Gell’s interest in patterning and in captivation in the context of agency. Reich’s essay, “Music as a Gradual Process” (it’s short and, more importantly, great), unsettles a clean distinction between human creativity and mathematical process, thereby unsettling an attachment to music as a product of the former alone. Reich’s phase-music or process-music compositions are composed according to mathematical relationships — their performance is the realization of these relationships.

“As to whether a musical process is realized through live human performance or through some electro-mechanical means is not finally the main issue. One of the most beautiful concerts I ever heard consisted of four composers playing their tapes in a dark hall. (A tape is interesting when it’s an interesting tape.)”

The Wikipedia entry on his piece “Piano Phase” helpfully sketches the premise of Reich’s phase-music:
Reich’s phasing works generally have two identical lines of music, which begin by playing synchronously, but slowly become out of phase with one another when one of them slightly speeds up. Reich had previously applied this technique only to sounds recorded on magnetic tape, but experimenting in his studio, he found it was possible for humans to replicate the effect. In Piano Phase, he has the two pianists begin by playing a rapid twelve note melodic figure over and over again in unison (E4 F#4 B4 C#5 D5 F#4 E4 C#5 B4 F#4 D5 C#5). After a while, one of the pianists begins to play their part slightly faster than the other. When they are playing the second note of the figure at the same time the other pianist is playing the first note, the two pianists play at the same tempo again. They are therefore playing notes at exactly the same time, but they are not the same notes, as they were at the start of the piece. The process is repeated, so that the second pianist plays the third note as the first pianist is playing the first, then the fourth, and so on until the process has gone full circle, and the two pianists are playing in perfect unison again. The second pianist then fades out, leaving the first playing the original 12 note melody. They then seamlessly change to a similar melody made up of 8 notes. The second piano fades in again, only this time playing a different 8 note melody at the same time. The phasing then begins again. After the full eight cycles have gone through, the first pianist fades out, leaving one 8 note melody playing. After a few repetitions, the pianist then takes out the first 4 notes of the melody and the first pianist fades in unison. They phase through the now four cycles, and finish after returning in unison. The music is made up, therefore, of nothing more than the results of applying the phasing process to the initial twelve-note melody – as such, it is a piece of process music.

In what ways is it uncomfortable to think that the realization of a preordained logical process is capable of evoking an aesthetic or emotional response? Why does it feel more comfortable to attribute this response to the labor of a distinct human agent? What does it have to do with “the fear of objects supplanting people” (the Daniel Miller formulation quoted on the syllabus)?

A simultaneously visual and auditory example of Reich’s phase music:


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