As the moon orbits our planet over a period of 27 days, its position relative to the Earth and the sun allows for a gradually changing portion of its face to be illuminated by sunlight. This progression from nearly completely unlit (“new moon”) to nearly completely lit (“full moon”) and back again is composed of what are known as the phases of the moon.
Phase music is a compositional technique where a repeated musical phrase is played on two different instruments (or tapes) at different tempos. The resulting relationship between the two lines going into and out of phase with each other produces a whole range of interesting and unexpected musical effects. This technique grew out of minimalism and Steve Reich’s early tape loop music.
On their new EP Moonphase, Oakland experimental composition group Two Aerials draw on both of these definitions of the term “phase”. The EP evokes phase music with its use of repetitive, polymetric, layered musical phrases on keyboards, cello, and vibraphone. And the delay-laden closing song, “Hair God”, in particular, explores the same sorts of unexpected aural relationships as phase music.
However, despite its use of repetition and phase-like effects, the music on Moonphase is not phase music. Instead, each of the five songs relies on a number of different compositional techniques to create beautifully subtle, shifting compositions. Indeed, the manner in which each track slowly evolves and changes evokes the phases of the moon, slowly progressing from one form to the next. The relationship between the different sorts of “phase” is almost certainly not accidental.
Two Aerials is primarily the product of Mark Clifford (vibes, keyboards, percussion, and composition) and Crystal Pascucci (cello, vocals, and composition). I first met Pascucci when she and Clifford came to New York for a week-long musical residency that she conducted at a gallery in Manhattan’s Chinatown. The music that she presented at the residency made heavy use of phase music and the entire project was related to the Chinese lunar calendar. In Pascucci’s work, the slow moving waves of phase and feedback are clearly related to the gradual changing phases of the moon. Clifford has also traversed similar territory in his previous music. Tidy Universe, his 2016 album with The Dirty Snacks Ensemble, explores the tension between modern composition and jazz improvisation, much as phase music builds on the unexpected effects drawn out of composed elements.
In addition to being musical collaborators, Clifford and Pascucci are married, having recently wed at a beautiful, gong-soundtracked ceremony in the Oakland hills. In both the wedding ceremony and the reception afterward, they affirmed the importance of their musical community to their personal, romantic relationship. At the risk of being unsubtle, there are two relevant parallels to be drawn between the music on Moonphase and a model of a successful relationship. Namely, that: 1) like in phase music, a strong foundation of two primary elements (a repeated musical phrase, loving romantic partners) can produce unexpected, beautiful (and occasionally dissonant) moments when set together; and 2) like the phases of the moon, a relationship can wax and wane but, over the long term, will never remain in darkness permanently. In both their musical and marital partnership, I am excited to see the phases that Pascucci and Clifford will produce.