Steve Reich and his early experiments with electronic music

Clothe-Re-Me: Defying Style & Music

Steve Reich performing his Clapping Music
Comme des Garcons Designer T-Shirt

We asked ourselves the big questions in UC Berkeley’s Letters & Science California Counter Culture course. I was exposed to the many different angles of arts, cultures and movements from the Sixties until now. Arguably, the most important takeaways from the course was learning about different movements and figureheads that promoted different ways of “going against the grain” of society’s norms. Some of the most interesting examples come from topics of clothing and music as a form of counter culture.

First, let’s consider how we wake up every single morning and, hopefully, always put on our outfit for the day. Am I going with my Chuck Taylor Converse or Birkenstock sandals? Should I put a Polo Ralph Lauren cardigan over my H&M t-shirt or will it be too hot outside? The process of getting dressed is second nature and we don’t even stop to think twice about it. What do these brands that we wear represent? Behind all the cotton and polyester there’s another layer to the clothing besides attempting to make yourself look stylish.

Gucci, Prada, Ralph Lauren, Comme des Garcons, Versace, Supreme, Bathing Ape, and Guess are just a few of many high-end designer brands today.There is much that separates these hype brands from basic brands such as Hanes or Target brand clothing. Most noticeably, is the difference in appearance between basic and designer clothing. Teenages love streetwear brands such as Supreme and Bathing Ape due to their unique and trendy designs. Adults always rock brands such as Ralph Lauren and Prada for a more grownup and sophisticated look.

However, underneath the aesthetics of high-end clothing lies a hidden message, a desire for the finer things in life. This is a message of belonging. A desire to become high-class. We constantly compare ourselves to the “elite” and icons of our generation. These include pop and movie stars, musicians, and billionaires. So why are people willing to spend thousands of dollars on Kanye West’s new Yeezy shoes? The answer is simple. Everyone is trying to play into a role that they feel is necessary for becoming significant by society’s standards. If you are to be cool and hip, you must wear Yeezy Season 3 and Supreme shirts. If you want to be invited to the most exclusive party in Hollywood, you must wear Armani paired with a Versace cologne.

Stephanie Syjuco’s Counterfeit Crochet Project Samples

We live in a time where we are what we buy. Sometimes our social status is put on a halt if we can’t obtain certain goods. Unfortunately, this reality is at the cost of many people who cannot afford to spend their money on excessive items. UC Berkeley Assistant Professor in Sculpture, Stephanie Syjuco, founded the Counterfeit Crochet Project. In her project Syjuco encouraged everyone to participate in crafting homemade copies of designer clothing and accessories with crochet. The project was a huge hit with many followers from across the nation submitting photos of their handy work to the project website. We are raised believing that those who have luxuries and can flaunt their wealth amount to something great. A key concept of our course is asking ourselves, “what kind of culture does a counter culture counter?”. Syjuco’s project is a prime example of this core concept, for she aimed to counter the very materialism and capitalism that surrounds and affects our everyday lives. Syjuco provided everyday people with the confidence and motivation to counterfeit products that seemed untouchable to your average consumer. The notion of average people possessing their own versions of these expensive brands clash with the grain of our society and its “rules”. The symbolism behind people who are not loaded possessing “designer accessories” counters the wide notion of who’s expected to have designer items in our society.

Kanye West Yeezy clothing line

Fashion became increasingly important to me as I grew up. It’s an outlet for expression, a way to make you standout from the crowd of sheep. Current fashion has even evolved to the point where holes and scuffs on clothing are considered to be the next big thing. Luxury designers, such as Kanye West’s collection, featured clothes that have an intentional low end look. I have even heard people go as far to describe Kanye’s clothing line as a “homeless look”. The current fashion trends have changed to favor a more laid back, dirty, and shaggy look.

It’s interesting to see how high end fashion trends have changed over time. If you look back 20 years ago, high end and trendy clothing would’ve been more sophisticated. However the fashion of today would disappoint our grandparents. Now we see that thousands of dollars buys us clothing that’s described as “homeless looking” and hipster. We can make a clear conclusion that even high end fashion today is beginning to counter what designer clothing originally stood for. The countering within fashion world is coming full circle.

Second, I experienced the heart of counter culture music through minimalistic music composer, Steve Reich’s performance at UC Berkeley earlier this year. Hertz Music Hall was packed , everyone looked prepared with open minds, for Reich’s newest piece, Runner. As a person who had never been exposed to minimal music, the performance’s possibilities seemed endless. Leading up to Reich’s newest piece were Clapping Music and the Quartet. When Reich took the stage for Runner, he was greeted with a loud applause. The room then fell under a deep silence. Reich lifted his hands and in a magical gesture, pulled the music out of each instrument to begin the piece.

Initially, my words couldn’t describe the sounds I was hearing. As a DJ, I thought I’ve heard it all. I have even been able to pair seemingly polar opposite songs together for amazing remixes. I have even seen the vocals of a Disney song coupled with the crashing beat of a dubstep drop. During the beginning of Reich’s performance, I was almost convinced that I was listening to typical classical music. The stage appeared to have a minimal set up in comparison to an orchestra. However, throughout the 25 minute piece I started to unwrap what Reich had wanted us all to hear.

Sample of Steve Reich’s stage set up

I began to pick out and distinguish the unique sounds of each instrument in the piece. There was the flute, clarinet, piano, and violin. There were also less commonly used instruments such as the vibraphone. I found it fascinating how focusing on different sections of the ensemble unlocked a fresh perspective on the piece. I especially enjoyed listening to the vibraphone, which stood out amongst the entire ensemble. The vibraphone had a very soft and echoing sound to it and was able to add a playful vibe to the piece without losing professionality.

Reich’s Runner, embodied the theme of the course. The reason that his performance was hard to decode at times was due to it being intentionally different from any classical or contemporary piece of music ever written. It was disembodied at certain points, but come to a surprising full circle in the end. I can relate it to mathematics in school where concepts seem unconnected at first. However, when they are intermingled with one another they all mesh together to form a whole. Reich’s notion of “going against the grain” embodies the essence of any counter culture. In my opinion Reich is countering what one might think of as “typical” classical music. When one sees an ensemble they most likely draw a connection to a common orchestra. However, Reich proves his audience and critics wrong.

Upon concluding his piece, the audience gave Reich the biggest standing ovation I have ever witnessed in my life. It was absolutely incredible to see the amazed faces of everyone in the audience post performance. The aftermath of the performance truly brought me back to nights where I would DJ for people and see excitement in their faces. I can see why musicians, like Reich, keep experimenting and creating unique music. My favorite electronic dance music artist, ZEDD, once said that his goal during his shows are to “give people something they didn’t know they wanted”. In my opinion there is nothing greater than giving someone another reason to smile during their day.

Grammy award winning electronic music artist ZEDD

Stephanie Syjuco and Steve Reich have each uniquely defied the norms of the world we live in. Their projects brought communities together and inspired many to think different and to do different. I must admit that it’s quite scary to stand-up to society when you’re told your ideas and creations are absurd. But when people like Syjuco and Reich stare society in the eyes, the results have only been positive and inspirational to others. Just think if no one ever asked questions and defied norms then we would be living in a pretty lame world today!