The Sounds of Now: Steve Reich and the Transmogrification of the Banal

As human beings, interpretive animals that attempt to navigate the world by coming to some sort of "understanding" of it, we are addicted to purpose.

Steve Reich's City Life

Director: Manfred Waffender
Cast: Steve Reich, Ensemble Modern
Length: 61
Studio: Kultur
First date: 1995
UK Release Date: Available as import
US Release Date: 2007-05-29

The dream of the avant-garde has always been to integrate art with the more abrasive elements of our existence, whether they be the extremes of sexual depravity (Oskar Kokoschka's Murderer, Hope of Women), the stultifying yet thrilling force of technological warfare (the Italian Futurists), or the banality of the excretory function (Marcel Duchamp's Fountain). Duchamp is the most intriguing example (as is usually the case when discussing any group that includes Duchamp) because he does not seek out the extreme but rather the everyday, that which we see so often as to almost forget its existence altogether. Indeed our wish to forget the urinal as a necessary attribute of our base animality is precisely what makes Fountain such a tour-de-force of ironic understatement. By making us see what we typically look at without seeing, Duchamp's readymade sculpture forces us into a parallax view where the object is both a urinal and an imaginative representation of a fountain. Life in all its ordinariness is simultaneously prosaic and profound.

The real point of interest in such artworks is not so much the attempt but rather the purpose behind the amalgamation of the exalted and the lowly. Should art transmute the vulgarity of life into a more rarefied and heady form of beauty? Or should art manifest vulgarity as a richly repulsive presence, confronting the audience with the grotesque and daring them to flinch? Or, lastly, should the goal lie somewhere between these two extremes? Should art not attempt to prettify vulgarity nor display it for its own sake but rather present the seemingly artless (banality, degradation, boredom) as something worth considering qua art?

Perhaps there is no avant-garde as such anymore (not surprisingly, my examples all came from the early 20th century). Perhaps that is the price we pay in our so-called postmodern age. If all directions are of equal (or no) value, then no group can be said to be ahead of the rest (the militaristic image of an "avant-garde" being that of a group that seeks out new terrain while the main corps remains behind). And yet, even in our time (perhaps especially in our time) there remain artists seeking to assimilate art and the commonplace elements of our lives. But the question remains: to what end? And this is the question I believe we ought to ask of a composition such as Steve Reich's City Life (1995). The DVD documentary, Steve Reich's City Life, by Manfred Waffender provides us with the opportunity for asking precisely this question.

The composition City Life is another in a series of pieces employing a technique Reich terms "speech-melody". That is, Reich records people speaking and uses that recorded material in two ways that interact throughout the composition: 1) he plays back the actual recorded sample; 2) he transcribes the melodic gesture behind the speech and assigns elaborated versions of that gesture to various instruments of the ensemble. Reich first used the technique in 1988's Different Trains, but during live performances of that piece, the recorded sounds were reproduced by tape. City Life employs no tape. Rather the recorded sounds are performed live via two sampling keyboards. This allows Reich the opportunity to manipulate the recorded patches to a greater degree than he could in Different Trains. By assigning the performance of the patches to musicians, Reich seemingly integrates the mechanically reproduced and the musical utterances generated through the living presence of the musicians. Furthermore, in City Life, Reich employs numerous recordings of city sounds outside of the realm of human speech (car horns, sirens, car alarms, doors slamming shut, foghorns). Indeed, it is this aspect of the composition in particular that aligns it with avant-garde attempts to create art by confronting an audience with the ordinariness of the everyday.

It is at this point that the thorny issue of purpose arises. By insisting upon "purpose" here, I am attempting to circumvent the even thornier problem of the so-called "intentional fallacy" -- the notion that we fall into the trap of believing that a work of art only means what the artist intended to convey. Notice that I am in no way concerned (at least so far) with Reich's intention in writing the piece (although we shall get a glimmer of his intention below). As W.K. Wimsatt, Jr. and Monroe Beardsley famously wrote: "The design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art." ("The Intentional Fallacy") From the moment of the birth of the artwork, in their memorable image, the work separates itself from the artist and belongs to the public. Its meaning is then a matter of negotiation between the internal aspects of the work itself (the content and form), the cultural context of its production and reception, and the interpretive apparatus with which an audience approaches it.

However, purpose, at least in the rather broad manner in which I am employing the term, encompasses the seeming intention behind a work or action, but it is an intention that is always already inflected by our understanding of the work or action. Let us employ a brief thought experiment in order to clarify what I have in mind (my intention -- although, at best, you can only infer my purpose). If I were to approach you and punch you in the arm, you would be fully justified in wondering to yourself (if not aloud), "why did he do that?" Depending on the context, you might think it an odd mannerism ("why does he do that every time we meet?"), or you might think I am being playful ("so he just now got that joke"), or you might think I am angry ("who told him about me and his sister?"). Perhaps none of these "readings" captures my actual intention at all (I was trying to kill a fly; I hate flies). Most likely, your understanding will discern some aspect of my intention but it will not comprehend the action in its fulness. That is to say, an action never fully discloses the intention behind it but also (and just as importantly) an interpretation of an action ascribes more purpose to an act than can be justifiably claimed by the action's author.

As human beings, interpretive animals that attempt to navigate the world by coming to some sort of "understanding" of it, we are addicted to purpose. Even seemingly random acts of nature strike us as requiring the explanatory redemption of purpose: "It's raining and I am ill and late for work; why do all of these things happen to me?" They do not just happen to you. There is no intention behind the weather and your state of health. And yet we feel that even intentionless forces of nature have some kind of purpose that we may come to interpret properly and use to understand its relation to us. We ascribe purpose to events insofar as the "facts" of the events (the internal elements) circumscribe our response to them. Indeed, purpose, in this broad sense, is precisely what we mean by responsible interpretation -- that is, a response through which we are responsible to the thing interpreted.

So even if we fully subscribe to the notion of the intentional fallacy (which, for the record if anyone is keeping a record, I do not), then we still seek out purpose -- which amounts to our responsible projection of an intentionality behind the act. This is what forces us to return to the question of the purpose behind the attempt to infuse art with the everyday both with respect to the larger historical trend and with respect to Reich's composition. Above, we outlined three possible aims behind such a fusion: 1) the aestheticization of the vulgar; 2) the grotesque display of the vulgar qua vulgar (that is, as an affront to the audience, an attempt to follow the demand attributed to Baudelaire that "Il faut épater le bourgeois" -- "You must shock the middle class"); 3) the presentation of the artless qua art. Each of these possible motivations betrays a decided ethical stance worth exploring.

The second aim reveals its ethical proposition with the least obfuscation. The reasoning goes, more or less, as follows: the bourgeoisie are inherently complacent and will only change when provided with a sufficiently lurid mirror reflecting their monstrosity in such a shocking manner that it forces them to reconsider their own ethical life. The shock induced by the artwork can range from the simplistic (think of the lower ranks of stand-up comedian) to the quite sophisticated. A fine example of the latter is Alban Berg's second opera, Lulu, based on two plays by Frank Wedekind. The eponymous heroine of the opera goes from socialite to whore without any change in her "essential" character while the male figures around her, despite their social pretensions, all reveal themselves to be subject to the basest animality. The subtlety of the portrayal depends not so much upon the setup itself but rather upon the way Berg's music gradually undermines the comfortable notion that what we are seeing is one particular example of depravity. As the opera progresses, we realize that such corruption is simply a manifestation of the bourgeois social fabric; degeneracy is its natural outcome.

The third possible motivation is, perhaps, the most intriguing and certainly the one most deeply indebted to a utopian frame of mind. The history of society, one might argue, is the history of a gradual accumulation of objects and stimuli. Think about walking down a crowded city street. Hundreds (if not thousands) of perceptible impulses strike your sensorium constantly. There are traffic lights, sirens, alarms, horns, the cries of street vendors, odors from a hotdog stand, billboards, public works of art, various birds picking at breadcrumbs, a rat furtively dodging between buildings, the distinct smell of gasoline mixed with hot asphalt, kids playing streetball, the sound of a train screeching to a halt in the distance, people riding by on skateboards or bicycles, glass crunching beneath your feet, an endless assortment of cars and buses, and crowds of people moving in all directions. Just navigating the sidewalks could (and sometimes does) result in a sensory overload. Modern life becomes a continuous distraction; an array of stimuli contends for our attention.

Some forms of art attempt to integrate us into this confusing environment not by mitigating the distance between the placidity of aesthetic contemplation and the bustle of quotidian existence but rather by insisting that the noise and commotion may be reconfigured through an aesthetic outlook. John Cage seems to have had something like this in mind with respect to his early percussion works when he said, "People may leave my concerts thinking they have heard 'noise,' but will then hear unsuspected beauty in their everyday life. This music has a therapeutic value for city dwellers." ("Percussionist", Time, February 22. 1943, 70.) The important thing to notice here is the direction the intended change is supposed to take. The noises of the city are not mollified or tamed. Rather we are asked to alter our perceptual framework; we change to accommodate the ineluctable confusion of the modern everyday. This is the utopian turn. The seemingly oppressive is overcome through an alteration in the forms of our consciousness.

The first possible motivation is the most troubling. Artwork infused with this purpose attempts to exert a manner of control that it is incapable of attaining. More to the point, such artwork traffics in a sleight of hand by which it presents a simulacrum of the vulgar while claiming to have transfigured the vulgar itself. Notice that this reverses the direction of change we described with respect to the third possibility. The artwork seeks to domesticate the grating object or sound by collapsing it onto a form of aesthetic discourse previously established (say, a tonal symphony). Thus what was outside is brought into the realm of art but it makes the transition by no longer remaining what it was. It is essentially neutered and any potential disruption it might have brought to bear upon the artwork (its potential for noise) has been exchanged so that the sound/object is now just another form of material to be used as any other. This purpose behind the "fusion" replaces the utopian turn of the third possibility with a distinctly autocratic impulse.

Although artworks intended to shock the bourgeois are typically obvious, distinguishing between the other two categories may present some difficulties. Where do we turn in order to discern whether City Life would best be thought of as a transmogrification of the vulgar or an attempt to throw preconceived notions of art and the quotidian into question? A first option might just be those proscribed statements by the composer that purportedly convey the author's intent. Insofar as Waffender's film partially documents Reich's compositional process in the development of City Life, it provides us with quite a few statements of intent. When showing off his keyboard and the samples he has collected thus far, Reich depresses a key that causes the machine to produce an all-too-familiar sound. "These are car alarms, basically one car alarm," he explains, "which you hear along the street all the time and it drives you nuts so it's better to just grab it, put it in the sampler, put it in the piece, and make a little peace with it."

The point, it would seem, is not to hear music in the alarms but rather, through electronic manipulation, to draw music out of the alarms. In several places throughout the documentary, Reich demonstrates the manner in which he alters samples in order to conform to the standardized pitch of a modern orchestra. Reich values the sound of a car moving away, for instance, because it is "nicely tuned to the C." He therefore uses it as the bass for the opening section of the composition. He even terms it a "car-cello" -- a revealing statement. This is the sound of the street becoming the familiar, domesticated sounds of the orchestra. Reich is not interested in the recorded material because it will expand the range of musical material (aside, perhaps, from an expansion of timbre) but rather because he can use it as an opportunity to do what he always does. The sounds do not seem to have challenged Reich in any way; he merely shapes them into his musical idiom by removing anything that might have been truly disruptive about them in the first place. These "noises" can be brought into the concert hall because, once they have been properly handled, they are no longer noises at all.

However, we need not run the risk of the intentional fallacy in order to come to the same conclusion. Let us begin with a simple comparison of two different uses of the recorded percussive attack of a pile driver. John Cage's "Solo for Voice 67" from his collection Songbooks (1970) consists of a single voice employing its extreme ranges without any mediation. Thus the entire song employs a squeaky, piercing falsetto juxtaposed against the barking growl of the low register. The only accompaniment is the sporadic thud of a pile driver. These sonic assaults come without warning; their appearances follow no discernible pattern. Thus they never become assimilated with the more consistent vocal sounds. They remain an intruder from without and thereby maintain their status as noise. The composition embraces noise without mitigating its violent impact. Reich also makes use of the pile driver in City Life but he reduces it to the role of a mere timekeeper. Owing to its metronomic regularity, one soon becomes accustomed to the new timbre; it effaces itself by conforming all too easily to its role as a simple percussion instrument. Cage's pile driver awakens us to the surprising world of sound that continually envelops us; Reich's pile driver is a gimmick.

Reich's attempts to domesticate the recorded sounds have darker consequences in the third movement of the piece. The source material for this movement is a snippet of melodically rich rhetoric suitable to Reich's needs. Apparently recorded during a protest at City Hall, the clip features the voice of an African-American man intoning the phrase "It's been a honeymoon", followed later in the movement by the phrase "can't take no mo'". We hear the original phrase in its entirety at the very opening of the movement but for the majority of this section the phrase is obscured through overlapping, fragmentation, harmonies saturated with dissonance, and a continuous rhythmic ostinato. We get no sense of what the speaker was protesting (Reich does not bother to clarify even within the various discussions of the movement during interviews); we are simply to understand that the protesters "were very angry". Thus Reich severs the speech not only from its producer but also from the very context that made the cryptic phrase intelligible in the first place. The isolation of the phrase makes it a partial object that somehow stands in for a generalized (and therefore futile) rage; the sample becomes a depiction of rage and thus undermines its power as protest. The film emphasizes the notion that the phrase is a partial object by accompanying the music with filmed images of African-American mouths moving in rapid speech but without revealing the rest of the bodies of the speakers -- more partial objects, more effacement of identity in the quest for the domestication of what was meant to stand aloof from the distancing effect of aesthetic contemplation.

One might justifiably compare this movement to Reich's early tape masterpieces, Come Out (1966) and It's Gonna Rain (1965) -- both of which feature African-American voices. Indeed, in an interview right before the live performance of City Life included on the DVD, Reich does just that. But those earlier works were process pieces -- meaning that Reich designed a process that was then carried out so that the source material was very gradually modified until the original phrase was no longer discernible. Therefore the listener moves relatively slowly from the recognizable speech act in all its particularity to the underlying machine-like quality of the syllables and percussive attacks that serve as the noise-filled substrate of all human speech. It is the dedication to process and the methodical form of revelation it produces that saves those early tape pieces from seeming like mere appropriation. Indeed, Come Out even provides some of the context of the phrase itself. In City Life, however, Reich rips the phrase out of context and reduces it to mere fodder for a groove. Everything in Come Out derives from the particularity of the speech act; the sample as used in City Life could have come from anybody. This is not speech becoming music as in those earlier works; this is speech reduced to mere musical material. This is not the furtherance of protest but the aestheticization of it.

The film itself registers the lack of authentic connection between the compositional employment of city sounds and the life of the city that it purportedly represents. Interspersed among the various interviews and scenes of rehearsals are numerous clips of people living, playing, working, and eating in various locations throughout New York. We see and hear the workers in a fish market, clicking plates and silverware at a diner, and crowds moving through the street. The plethora of sounds creating strange and wonderful combinations is far more intriguing than anything in City Life. The composition, by comparison, may attempt the transmogrification of the banal but by vitiating the sounds of their disruptive potential, it proves to be a sadly tedious experience.

In this essay, I have attempted to raise (but do not pretend to have resolved) a rather pressing issue: the question of responsibility in music. Are composers responsible to (and for) the sounds they employ in their compositions? What does this responsibility entail? By castrating the sounds of their unruly natures, by reducing them to a pre-ordained notion of orderliness, did Reich fail in his responsibility to his freely chosen sound material? And what about my responsibility as a listener? Are the troubling contradictions I hear in this piece more my creation than Reich's? By questioning the basic assumptions of his compositional approach, am I merely refusing to play the game that Reich set in motion? But if that is a proper rebuke of my reading, then are we always in the position of the passive recipient of the artwork? Certainly, to accept that is to cede one's autonomy over to another, in which case art is no longer the engagement of real presences in an act of freedom (as George Steiner insists it is). But the question still haunts me: is my response responsible?

* * *

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