There emerge, at various times and places, manifestations of art which transform the realm of possibilities. New York in the late ’60s was such a place. To invent — to originate something new — was the pressing need of the moment. The group of young artists that would bring about the change came from different practices. They were musicians, dancers, sculptors, painters, filmmakers. I’ll mention a few amongst others who were insistent on bringing about such a rupture, such a break: Michael Snow, La Monte Young, Philip Glass, Yvonne Rainer and the Grand Union, Trisha Brown, Bruce Nauman, Robert Smithson, Bob Ryman, and I have to include Steve and myself on the list.
We were each other’s audience and critics. The interchange of ideas nourished new approaches to materials, to time, to context, to process. We were all involved in process. Trisha did her Accumulations piece; Bruce fell in and out of the corner; I wrote Verb List and splashed molten lead against the wall; Steve wrote his Pendulum Music for microphones, amplifiers, speakers, and performers. I was one of the performers when Pendulum Music was played at the Whitney in 1969 as part of the “Anti-Illusion” show. That show summed up the activities of the moment, and confirmed this group as a movement. One could call Pendulum Music a paradigm for process art. Let me read a paragraph of Steve’s notations:
“The performance begins with performers taking each mike, pulling it back like a swing, and then in unison releasing them all together. Performers then carefully turn up each amplifier just to the point where feedback occurs when a mike swings directly over or next to its speaker. Thus a series of feedback pulses are heard, which will either be all in unison or not, depending on the gradual changing phase relations of the different mike pendulums. Performers then sit down and watch and listen to the process along with the audience.”
Steve’s early work has had a lasting effect on me. Come Out, It’s Gonna Rain, Clapping, Drumming, Piano Phase refuse to be eradicated from my mind, although I have no precise recollection of how the pieces develop. Listening to Steve’s music is being in complicity with his process. Comprehension is a matter of complicity. My experience lags behind my anticipation, which has to do in part with the speed of sound. It keeps me alert, sometimes annoyingly so. Even after having heard Steve’s pieces many times I can never predict with any assurance how the pieces are going to develop as I am listening. The density and saturation of sound — the specific gravity — prevents recollection.
Sometimes as the music evolves patterns change so swiftly that its logic evades me. I am unaware of its consistency, particularly in the latter work, where I only experience an emotional effect, and I completely give myself over to the rush of sound. Yet I am aware that there is an exact weight to the lightness of the sound. Although there are varying durations, the power of Steve’s music has a lot to do with its speed. I find my ear and mind being flooded with ideas and emotions, which follow in quick succession. Tempo counts. Tempo — timing — may be a value in and of itself, and it’s of particular importance to me whether the pace is quick or slow, contracted or extended. It’s the same subjective time that conveys meaning to perception as you walk through an installation I recently completed in Bilbao titled The Matter of Time. It is based on the idea of multiplicity or layered temporalities. Duration — not clock time, not literal time — is the main organizing principle that drives the work. The time of the experience can be fast or slow, which depends entirely on bodily movement. The listening to Steve’s music is subjective time, psychological time, durational time, and comparable to the viewing time in my work.
Some of the music places me in a constant state of unease with its continuous, relentless, insistent modulations. It forces me to follow its trajectories. It gains its power through the building of similarities, connecting them one after the other so that the process of adding produces a kind of layered rhythm: forward, forward, backward, forward. As the pieces develop, the sound includes and connects all that you’ve previously heard in its elastic stretch. It is as if the sound begins to roll forward, pitch backward, and then forward again, shift and repeat. I understand that the form is a round, but it’s not what I hear. This is not the Alouette I learned as a child.
When I recall Come Out or It’s Gonna Rain, I don’t recall the structure or concise logic of the pieces. What I retain is a feeling of alienation and discomfort. It might seem strange but the discomfort arises from a rethinking of form. That is what I cherish in art, whether it’s Schoenberg, Feldman, Newman, or Pollock.
Let me try to explain what I mean by a rethinking of form in relation to Steve’s early pieces, where he uses prerecorded language. He starts out with a seemingly simple premise: a found voice, a sentence uttered. But as he subjugates this found language to his structure of overlays, as it is repeated again and again, the detail of the detail begins to resonate. I find that I am drawn into the infinitesimal, the infinitely subtle moving variations. It’s then I realize I am lost in the infinite vastness of the whole. As the voices spin out they become something other than language. The words are transformed by rhythm into emotion. Words sing as sounds, and as they reach the end of the path they trace through their phased diversions and combinations the result is music, not language. Language is being pushed to the breaking point, where the meaning of the word has been obliterated so as to allow its potential for music to emerge. It’s as if the original word or phrase has been stretched along an abstract, infinitely variable line dissolving its original meaning in a process, which allows for a new meaning to emerge. Smithson, who is a friend of mine, loves Steve’s work. I can hear him say, “Oh yeah, I get it. The disintegration of language into the vortex of entropy.”
It takes effort to sustain listening to Steve’s music. That’s its virtue. You might say great composers need great listeners. Steve was never tempted by commissions for operas or symphonies. He says, as the end of his interview with Jonathan Cott, that life is too short to just write the next orchestral commission. “Best to do what you have been assigned to do. I have been given my assignment, just as everyone has his or her assignment.” I don’t think I am wrong when I assume that Steve looks to his assignment as given by a higher power. Whether we believe in assignments — whether we are secular or religious — does not matter. In Steve’s case his beliefs translate into conviction. It’s the conviction that makes the work compelling.
Having taken this tack I want to compare two major composers of the second half of the 20th century in terms of their philosophical underpinnings. Steve Reich’s belief of having been given an assignment to fulfill differs radically from Cage, who said: “I have nothing to say but I’m saying it.” I always thought Cage’s statement was somewhat disingenuous in that he used an attitude of indifference and a denial of meaning to bolster his musical theory based on chance. The ability to believe and to confess to a belief is a quality. Art, music, and poetry would not exist without belief systems. Belief systems are not synonymous with ideologies. I do not mean to suggest that art ought to communicate a specific ideology. Art is purposefully useless. It must refuse to serve. However, nonservice does not negate the ability or necessity for an artist to have a belief. It may be a mere belief in self, or a longing for belief. It may be a belief in making a contribution. Assumptions, speculations, all kinds of superstitions qualify as belief systems. I simply don’t believe that art can come out of an attitude of indifference. That’s where I take issue with Cage. We all have fantasies, we all imagine, we all project. Making art is an act of faith, a manifestation of hope.
I’ve always felt that Steve had an ethical grounding, which in his early work translated into social and political philosophy and responsibility, whereas in the later work the emphasis is on the historical and the spiritual. Steve didn’t choose the words for It’s Gonna Rain or Come Out by chance. Come Out was a political choice of content, echoing the concerns of the Civil Rights Movement. I never got over the desperation of a young black man who was wrongfully arrested for murder and, having been beaten in a Harlem police precinct, squeezed his bruised leg until blood came out so he would be taken out of his cell to be cleaned up. I came upon his cry for the first time when Steve played the tape loop for me in his studio. Conceptually, I begin with process, form, and structure. Here, I found myself listening to a work where the form was content driven, where the account of the boy — “I had to like, open the bruise up and let some of the blood come out to show them” — was turned into the sound of sheer anxiety. It floored me. Come Out violated any notion of music that I held.
It was with these early works that Steve became the key figure of my generation and for the generations that followed.
Written for MacDowell Medal Award Ceremony for Steve Reich in 2005