The obligatory Obama post; a hurrah for democracy (plus an attempt to use cultural theory when discussing art)

Piano Phase by Steve Reich played by Peter Aidu

…a YouTube clip about which Bruce Sterling says: “Holy cow, he’s manually playing out-of-phase tape loops for almost five minutes. That’s like climbing Mount Everest backward.”

Obama was sworn in yesterday, and I was struggling to think of anything relevant to say, until I found that clip on Bruce Sterling’s Wired blog.

Having endured the downside of American democracy for the last eight years, the world is now thrilling to how good it feels when it functions. Living and working in the US for a while in the 90s it I realised that Americans’ and Britons’ notions of democracy that are as different as our understandings of the word “fanny”. In Britain you only need to look at the freakish history of Lords reform to see what a bizarre concept we have of it.

By and large our political system is like the average British house, an elderly pile with with DIY extensions added on in an attempt to achieve some kind of vaguely practical solution over the years. Democracy is the renovation we gave the house somewhere late in that house’s history.

America’s revolutionary history meant its house was actually founded on democracy, and the idea permates society in a totally different way. That’s not to say American democracy always lives up to those ideals… often quite the opposite, but as democracy is at the heart of what it is to be American, it seeps into the way artists think about culture there.

In American orchestral music it often turns up in a particularly profound fashion. 19th century classical music was the ultimate heirarchcal form; the “great” composer and the “great” conductor overseeing the subsurvient orchesta, who in turn delivered a work of great art to the mass of the people.

In Europe, composers like Schoenberg rebelled against classical heirachy in a kind of hefty, intellectual way, with the 12 tone technique, which uses evenly spaced notes so that no note had any more meaning or value that the next one. It’s kind of a radical egalitarian approach, and like many radical egalitarian experiments, it gathered a few earnest devotees but never set the world alight. Understandably, audiences found it hard to perceive what the meaning of such music might be.

American composers toyed with Schoenberg, but also took a different route. People from Charles Ives onwards were as interested in what the audience hears as in what the composer writes. The notion that the act of listening is as important as the act of writing is a very democratic one. Ives’ own democracy of sound rings loudly in the apparently chaotic passages of works like Three Places In New England, in which popular tunes collided head on with avante-garde orchestral passages. Each time you listen you create a new path through the piece.


The idea reached its zenith in pieces like John Cage’s 4’33”; a
piece composed entirely of silence onto which the listener imposes his
own experience, perhaps chosing to listen to the ambient sound of the real world as music. (As David Berridge explains on the main website here, this became a central inspiration for the Fluxus movement. )

Steve Reich’s thrilling Piano Phase was written for two players, both playing the identical musical figure. One of them then speeds up and slows down slightly so that the musical ecology between the two sets of notes  changes subtly. (That’s why Peter Aidu’s so performance is jaw-dropping… though mainly in a kind of bizareely geeky Ripley’s Believe-It-Or-Not how-neurologically-do-you-do-that? way). The piece is never the same twice, and again, the listener will discern their own pulses and patterns within the piece. 

For all the politics implicit in Steve Reich’s work, there’s a lot of that’s explicit too, from his hair-pricking debut tape experiment Come Out, created from an interview with a survivor from a race riot, to Different Trains, which reflects on Holcaust transports that took Jewish children to their death.

That said, though these ideals inform his practice, Reich remains cautious about music’s ability to create change the world beyond him:

I like to give this example: Maybe one of the greatest
paintings that Pablo Picasso painted was “Guernica,” and “Guernica” was
painted as a protest against civilian bombing. Now, as a painting it’s
a masterpiece. As a political gesture: a total, complete failure.

But if Picasso hadn’t painted “Guernica,” Guernica
would be a little footnote in the history of the Spanish Civil War, and
now many of us know of Guernica because Picasso painted it. So he made
a memorial. Because it moved him, because he was a Spaniard, because he
cared about it, he made this wonderful piece.

Japanese Times interview 2006


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