Thursday, November 15, 2007

Minimal Engagement

So I wrote before about having ponied up $8.99 to download an album of Mozart double concerti based largely on the inspiration of a promotional video. Now, as if to prove that video hasn't killed the classical star (was he/she dead already?), I've dropped another $8.99 on an album download, based again on the appeal of a promotional video. In my half-hearted, sort of ongoing quest to be up-to-date, I decided to invest in that big hit of 1976, Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians. (I'd like the title better if it weren't so obvious. Wouldn't Music for 18 Anesthesiologists be more compelling? (And in the spell-check shock of the year, it just turned out that I spelled anesthesiologists correctly on the first try.))

I think this is my first financial investment in Minimalism since I let the Columbia Record Club send me Glassworks back in the day. I used to enjoy putting that record on and sort of letting it groove over me; actually, come to think of it, I also paid something like $0.25 for an eMusic download of Terry Riley's In C, that 46-minute track being the greatest of all my eMusic bargains (unless you're calculating value by chord changes per dollar). So why the sudden interest in Reich? Well, I saw some Internet buzz about the Grand Valley State New Music Ensemble's Reich project, and when I watched the 4-minute promo video, I was hooked, even mesmerized.

Whereas the Mozart video had me listening with renewed engagement to the entire audio download of that 30-minute work, at this point I find myself preferring the tidy little 4-minute Reich video trailer to the full 1-hour audio. I know this isn't completely fair; first of all, I have much more experience listening to Mozart than to Minimalism, and I don't doubt that the Music for 18 Musicians loses something when not experienced live. At any rate, it's not my point to be negative about the achievement of the Grand Valley State ensemble; one reason I downloaded the album was as a token gesture of support for their accomplishment, and as far as I can tell, the playing is quite successful. (Actually, I prefer their sound to the samples of Reich's group playing that you can hear here.)

I'm not surprised that I haven't suddenly become a Minimalist believer, but what interests me is how much I like this music in the brief trailer, accompanied as it by distinctly non-Minimalist images. Whereas the music is repetitive, the video consists almost exclusively of quick, rhythmic cuts from one rehearsal/performance excerpt to another. Thus, there's hardly a shot that lasts more than a couple of seconds, and the jumps are always timed to fit the lively metrical accents of the music. The pulsing energy of the music does a great job of implanting the message that these humble Midwesterners have worked with devoted diligence, and it doesn't really matter that what we're hearing doesn't literally match up with the musicmaking we're seeing.

So I guess I'm saying this music works well as soundtrack (a soundtrack to itself?), and though I don't really know all that much about Reich, it's clear how influential his sound has been in pop and film music. (As much as anything, I'm struck by how much the music sounds like it could be produced entirely by synthesizers - if not in 1976, certainly now.) Maybe the best summary of my experience so far is that I like this music as background more than foreground; again, I don't mean that to be as negative as it sounds, but I wonder if I'm not ready yet to listen to this music on its own terms. I'm sure there's a certain satisfaction in participating in a performance of such a work, but it doesn't really tap into what I'm wired to want from music.

I'm also mildly amused by the canny marketing of the Grand Valley State gang - the way they embrace their country mouse status. There's no question that the idea of a group from a low-profile school in Michigan taking on this big city music makes the whole project engaging. They even flaunt this by putting a photo of flat, flyover farmland on the CD cover. It's a great image that both underlines the group's outsider identity and suggests that maybe people in these rolling, repetitive flatlands know something about finding energy in the midst of the humdrum.

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