“I don’t care how much people understand what it is that I’m doing, except if they’re players in my ensemble or other ensembles. I just want people to be moved by the music. If you’re not moved by the music, then everything else falls away.”
I navigate through a minefield of well-dressed strangers and hushed voices to find my seat in the dimly lit concert hall. Watching the stage intently, I patiently wait for a large orchestra to take their places. The lights dim even further and the room goes dead silent. Not an orchestra, but two older men in black turtlenecks trot confidently to the front of the stage. The room erupts with applause and slowly I join in, not quite sure who or what I’m clapping for. The two men wave at the crowd and once again, silence.
The man on the left seems to begin counting off, but neither of them are holding instruments. Are they going to sing? Are the actual musicians somehow out of sight? Then the two men start clapping, as if mocking the audience. It begins as a steady rhythm, like some bizarre metronome. At first I just stare skeptically.
Clapping simply doesn’t seem ‘musical.’ But then, something magical happened. One of the sweater-clad men drifts off the cadence, just slightly. Time passes and the steady beat slowly morphs, filling the room with a cacophony of syncopated rhythm. The men share an expression of intense focus, running through the complex piece with the precision of expert percussionists. The crowd is spellbound around me, and I begin to let go of my skepticism. It is clear these men had spent countless hours perfecting this odd performance, and steadily my respect starts to grow. On and on the beat flows from their constantly moving hands, slowly shifting and never allowing itself to remain static. After five or ten timeless minutes they strike their last few staccato notes and bow. This time I don’t hesitate to join the unexpectedly musical applause.
This was Clapping Music, the opening piece of Steve Reich’s concert at UC Berkeley’s Hertz Hall on January 29th, 2017. His entire set was enchanting, filled with these complex rhythms and melodies beyond the ability of the human mind to truly follow, but it was this brief opener that struck me above all else. Excited as I was to see this performance, it was a course requirement and if I had enrolled in any other class I would undoubtedly have spent Sunday night differently. All it took was this simple yet deeply complex clap-performance to realize I would have sorely missed out.
Within minutes, my expectations of what I considered a concert to be were dashed aside, allowing me to fully immerse myself in Reich’s unmistakably unorthodox style. It was the perfect choice to open the night. Upon learning that this was originally composed in 1972, Reich’s prominence in the avant-garde music world makes perfect sense. When people heard this music for the first time, they were hearing something that had never been done before. It is for this reason he is considered by many as “one of a handful of living composers who can legitimately claim to have altered the direction of musical history.” (1)
Reich’s works are beyond unique, they are inherently countercultural. He began his career in the 1960s in San Francisco, a setting that hardly needs any introduction. There he became involved with the San Francisco Tape Music Center, an “autonomous, unaffiliated organization for composers looking to break into the Digital age.” It sought to undercut the elitist and largely inaccessible classical music scene by offering free equipment and studio space that would generally be impossible to obtain for an unestablished artist. (2)
Reich and several colleagues at the Tape Music Center also pioneered the genre of minimalism, explicitly countering the grandeur of traditional classical music that required entire orchestras to perform. Instead of rows of trumpeters or violinists, minimalist composers use only a few classical instruments, if any. Instead of the set classical structure and wide range of keys, they might use only a few notes on a loop. It was a revolutionary concept that has earned Reich his legendary status as a musical mastermind.
However, like any artistic risk taker, his works were met with initial skepticism and even downright hatred. One of his earlier performances at Carnegie Hall in 1973 featured everything from “lusty boos” to vocal threats from the audience yelled above the sound of his pulsing melodies and syncopated rhythms. It would take decades for the musical world to fully accept him, but by 2011 he would be invited back to Carnegie as a celebration of “one of America’s greatest living composers.” (3)
Although Steve Reich is an innovator in his own right, he comes from a long line of artistic rebels who also helped to counter and broaden the art establishment. In the early 20th century, Dada emerged as a movement to oppose the defined art world and it’s structure, instead opting for anti-capitalist irrationality and finding value in nonsense.
Perhaps the quintessential Dada sculpture was Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain. The ‘sculpture’ was nothing more than a urinal turned upside down with a hastily scribbled signature reading “R. Mutt.” Initially submitted to an esteemed fine art exhibit in France in 1917, the piece was immediately rejected as quite simply “not art.” The original piece was then reportedly thrown away, but it succeeded in igniting a fierce international debate on the simple question of what could be considered art. (4)
Thirty years later the piece was considered extremely significant in the modern art era. Fountain forced the world to ask itself what deserves to be in an exhibit, and in doing so succeeded in creating an intellectual discourse that challenged the entire art establishment. In the words of art critic Beatrice Wood, “He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view — created a new thought for that object”. Just as Reich had turned applause into music, Duchamp made a toilet into art.
Can you do away with instruments altogether and still make something considered musical? Just like Fountain, it seems laughable at first. But also like Duchamp, Reich continues to broaden the perspectives of his audience in this way. By pushing the boundaries of the public understanding of art, these artists have joined the select few who have successfully changed the art world forever.