Getting Inside The Listen

Getting Inside The Listen

The following chapter, excerpted from The Listen by Christopher Jon Honett and Peter Gilbert, is reprinted with permission from the authors. It is available from Caminantes Press.

Music for 18 Musicians (1976)
Steve Reich

The heartbeat of the piece is moving fast but the breathing is very slow. And even if you don’t consciously separate the layers, you may still sense its vibrant calm, the warmth of its coolness.

After the first twenty seconds, the pulses have become a point of reference. Within the body of sound now present, the volume crests and troughs in rounded six- or seven-second washes. And among these waves are other cycles as well—of colors and of registers for instance—rotating with their own periodicities. And the simultaneity of the pulses and the longer waves is so pertinent because you can feel them each so physically.

Because these two experiences are both available at once, you can sometimes be more engaged with the pulse and then expand out to that slow breathing rate and feel that large openness—that dark, seemingly limitless expanse—as it expands underneath you and through you, beyond your vision’s limits.

But then you have the opposite experience as well, of that gigantic openness being pulled into a single point of focus—this very private, physiological self-awareness that brings you entirely within your own body.

Like sitting inside your own heartbeat.
Section I
And now melody. And now melodies. The melodies here being the playings-out of the harmonies. The harmonies being the on-ringing of all the melodic notes.

The harmonies are one harmony that absorbs the up-till-now waves of the other harmonies, that absorbs the leftover pulses. This accumulated on-ringing describes a recognizable environment. And then, about halfway through the section, the entrance of a new pitch—a single addition to the bottom of the harmony—acts as a diaphragm, allowing this environment to open and to breathe in.

And in this opening, new isolated waves escape and come to the fore, riding on that inhalation, like anomalous little strands of light that presage the dawn of their source. And then, just as naturally as it opened, the harmony flexes back in, to its original state.

But now, again, just the melody and its heartbeat. And three chimes.

The last chime seems to let in a little more light.
Section II
A point of highlight is introduced into the melodic pattern, a tiny Vermeer stroke of pure white. It begins as an improving scratch in the record, then accumulates after cycles of cycles, as it evolves from a singularity into a melodic shape. And it continues to evolve, then echoing in the voices even after the clarinets have died away. And a new but similar evolution begins in the sharp percussive attacks of the xylophone. But now, those repeating pulse-driven waves, those pulsing under-washes from the opening of the work, have reappeared underneath these recycling melodies.

It may be only now, after the prolonged harmony of Section I, that you notice something unusual about this progression resulting from the waves in the bass—a sense of the repeated satisfaction of arriving at a newly stable harmony without having ever been unstable in the first place.

One of the things that harmony does very well is to create a sense of not-having-arrived, and then moving into the having-arrived. And it turns that formal shape into a visceral force that we experience in each moment, as in the flexing out of the harmony in Section I and the re-flex back.

But the low waves of Pulses that return in Section II are remarkably able to change without passing through the state of not-having-arrived. Reich instead finds ways to move from a point of arrival to another point of arrival, so that you’re able to be always-here without being limited to one fixed position.

All this time, above these always-arriving harmonies, the melody, now melodies, in the xylophones continue to grow rhythmically dense. And then, having reached an upper-limit, they transform into a part of the pulse-stream itself, on the way to becoming longer breathing waves, now with a new touch of brilliance.

And there’s the melody and the heartbeat. And three chimes.
Section IIIA
And a bit brighter still. This time though, not just more light, but a push forward as well, like a soft shifting gear.

And now in the inflorescence, I feel the energy from all the players more intensely, as if everything is so much closer to me.

And the competing of all the different layers of time now seems to make each strand more animate, and each more tenacious in its individuality. This pouring out is a new warmth that surreptitiously washes over, bathing everything as the various elements now ripple and swell and spark in that prismatic onslaught of a liquescent dance of light.

I was crossing the Adriatic Sea on a night ferry going from Croatia to Italy. For the longest time, long after all the other passengers had gone inside to sleep, I sat with a friend outside on the uppermost landing. We knew that we should feel like we were moving very fast. But on such an enormous boat, and in such enormous darkness, we felt absolutely still, as if we were merely sitting outside on a windy night. And the only suggestion of our motion came from a faint patch of moonlit water, giving this sense of the immensity of a speed that is simultaneous with stillness.

And now the melody and the pulses and the three chimes.
Section IIIB
And now the melodies and the pulses while the clarinets, the strings, and a voice start to draw in breath. And more lines congregate, layer by layer.

The next time you have a chance, stand by a piano when the room is quiet, hold down the sustain pedal, strike a note loudly, and listen to the resonance. The first few times, your focus may be dominated by the primary pitch—the lowest part of the sound. But if you do it several times and listen as closely as you can, you may start to hear that the decay of a piano note is actually a very complicated event, made up of an infinite collection of sounds, most of which are very, very soft but many of which are audible to the human ear. You may hear the sounds as ringing or they may be coming in and out in pulses, and as you become aware of different parts of the decay, you may hear different kinds of ringing and different kinds of pulses.

Sounds, both musical and non-musical can be deconstructed into a series of interacting vibrations. It’s a certain number of these vibrations that you can hear in isolation in the decay of the piano resonance. Without focusing on individual vibrations, the ear consolidates them into a single sounding event, as it typically does with sounds in the natural world. The ear’s ability to take a step back and assemble all these layers into something beautifully specific prompts the imagination to try and do this with the flowing, beating, and overlapping layers of this piece—to hear the glow of the agreements and arguments of waves as a single encompassing musical being, like the breathing of a piano note and its decay.

And you hear that it’s time again. And the three chimes.
Section IV
You feel the tide receding, that the shift of color that happens on the third chime is not another brightening—it’s a softening. And there is less of the warm radiance and more of the cooling exhalations, beginning a breathing out of the entire trajectory so far.

All of the cycles up to now are folded into the arc of this long wave. The breadth of this single shape, which spans nearly thirty minutes of music, requires concentration to perceive as a single continuous motion. But even as an unconscious force, it is still completely relevant to every moment.

One of the characteristics of the end of the exhale on a section-to-section basis is the return to a focusing on the pulses—the pulses that were the beginning of the first long inhale—returning to the state of beginning, zeroing in on the wave’s nodal point.

What’s special about the node of a wave is that, for just that moment, it’s not moving at all. Or, perhaps, it’s the one instance in which it’s moving both up and down, both forward and backward with equal force. The result being that, for just that moment, it remains exactly where it is. It’s the neither-forward-nor-backward, or both-forward-and-backward moment, the point where you’re neither inhaling nor exhaling.

Now, as Section IV concludes and this large multi-sectional wave returns to the pulses, to the nodal point, you have plenty of time to reoccupy the heartbeat.
Section V-IX
Now, as Section V begins, and a new multi-sectional wave is started, particularly now you may feel yourself situated in the larger piece. And you may even feel that this piece is situated within a larger identity of other pieces like it.

If music is about love, it’s pieces I’ve fallen in love with. Not the genres, but the pieces themselves.

A genre is a name describing a body by relating its similarities to other bodies. And this is more than just information—it can access a feeling that what I’m hearing is already a part of my life, that it’s a part of the life I’ve already lived, as well as the life I get to share with others. But once the comparisons begin I can sometimes become distracted by my memories and preconceived notions, and can forget to observe the individuality of the body in front of me. So it can be difficult for a piece that’s a part of a genre as ingrained as minimalism to generate a distinctive listening experience where I find myself thinking whatever that was, I’m just not the same person I was thirty minutes ago.

Now, as Section V begins, I’m certainly not the same as I was when the pulse started. I have the pulses, I have the melodies, as I’ve had before. And whether the pianos are now rebuilding, or again building from scratch, there is a specific history we’ve shared together that adds to our sense of elevation.

And our shared history points to our shared now. This where-we-have-come-to provides the where for our memory of the coming. This body through which we have just traveled, in its finishing already implies another—the next.

And these two bodies, this body and the next, are somehow able to find a tiny point of connection, a singularity between them. A nodal point, specified and located. It’s the act of intersecting or of interacting. It’s the inter itself. This is the kiss. The kiss that is not the first. It bears the hope of a future in the same way that the first kiss did, but now it’s a hope that includes the knowledge of everything that’s happened since the beginning.

You know your own body. Your experience of existence, your history, is with that one body. And in that moment of the kiss, there are lips also, not your lips, which create a radical awareness of fingers that are not your fingers and a heart that is not your heart. The contact with this otherness is a direct connection to the more-than-yourself, to the more-than-you-know; perhaps a doorway to the more-than-yourself worth living for.

This vision of the future born out of an intimate knowledge of the past is a different kind of beginning. The climactic wave starts with an intensity it inherits from our shared history, and we feel the flow so much more knowing just how specific and focused the aperture is. The pulses are still pulses. The melodies are still melodies. But perhaps even more so. And the harmonies continue to arrive with an even-moreness. These chords have their own adrenaline, independent of volume or tempo. The story of the harmony here is an accrual of in-betweens that culminates in a lift that pulls through our bodies to a moment of heightened involvedness.

Among all the playing out of this subliminal mystery of harmony, there is a single extraordinary moment of surprise. As Section VI ends, the chimes bring us again to a nodal point, to that focused sense of now. The chimes are the chimes, as they have been, only even more so. And now, even though the harmony does still travel through from one arrival to the next, the beginning of Section VII manages also to feel more like an arrival in the place where we already are.

We fall inwards, through the kiss, where separateness dissolves. The singular moment becomes the everywhere, lasting into the next and then the next after that. It’s our felt knowledge of this whole divined from experiences of the specific. It’s a discovery of the more-than-ourselves through our selves—the immense speeds in the stillness, the stillnesses in the speed. It’s where indepedent waves are heard as the totality of a note. The one chime that is all of the chimes, the moment of the chimes that is all of the moments. It’s the fluid connectivity of the intuitive mind, seeing discrete bodies into one body.

And it is this engagement, it is this sense of being alive that makes all the more pressing our capacity for attention, that makes crucial our attention, that continues, even now, to demand this very attending.

Where we have been, where we are.

And again where we have been, where we are. The pulses. The wave at its ending, at its beginning.
Section X
Though a third and final wave has begun, and we are in another sense now most fully in the exhale of the piece, this is still part of the out-breathing after the intensities of VI and VII. And it is dark—not in a scary way, but very twilight somehow: the maybe bright oranges and reds of those last beams of the sun giving way to the purples and grey-blues and that early soft black.

And then, without having happened at any single point, the sun has now disappeared completely.

And then three chimes.
Section XI
Perhaps this is the point when we get our night eyes back, and suddenly it’s not so dark anymore, but maybe the darkness becomes illuminated. One of those great snow-covered nights when you suddenly realize you can see with an almost mid-day clarity.

We’ve been listening to this piece now for more than an hour. Waves of breathing, of tidal push and pull, have risen to a climax of internal luminosity from which the sun has set, and we’ve returned to our focus—though an altered focus from the one with which we set out.
So this, now, is the receding, and in it you become more aware of yourself again, as I become more aware of myself, returning to this strangely unfamiliar familiar body. But this music is still inhabiting us. And the pulses and the waves and the reverberations, always preparing to continue on alone should the musicians stop.

We are here. Always-here.

And then it’s over.

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