"In Zen they say: If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, try it for eight, 16, 32, and so on. Eventually one discovers that it's not boring at all but very interesting." — John Cage
I've been thinking about that quote a lot this past week in anticipation of a couple upcoming shows, particularly this coming Saturday's performance by the Third Angle Ensemble of Steve Reich's peerless Music For 18 Musicians.
That much-repeated line from Cage is a perfect encapsulation of what makes Music for 18 Musicians such a fascinating and beautiful piece of work, capable of moving listeners with the same depth of feeling and hypnotic pulse some 36 years after its premiere in New York City.
I speak from experience on this front, having been lucky enough to see Third Angle perform the piece in 2009 at Reed College's Kaul Auditorium. I wrote about it in the virtual pages of this blog, but for some reason, the piece has disappeared from the site. So, allow me to sum up: I was completely enraptured.
I have listened to this piece a few dozen times via Reich's original LP release and a more recent rendition by the Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble. But neither had me as locked in and lost in the polyrhythms and pulses and patterns as feeling it swirl around me in real time, coming from the hands and voices of real musicians. It had me so wrapped up there were times I went into a kind of trance, and my body felt like it was floating a foot above its seat.
Though he doesn't state it outright in the interviews with Reich nor the notes he wrote for the 1978 LP, I'm quite sure that is the desired effect. The music maintains a meditative quality through its use of repetition. The marimba lines that rattle throughout the hour-plus composition are the core of this idea, but every instrument circles around a few different melodies over the course of a given performance.
As you rightly assume, artists and musicians have been exploring these ideas for centuries before Reich and Music for 18 Musicians came along. And, of course, the effects of repetition on listeners have only been expanded upon. One such artist that has fully embraced the hypnotizing, Zen-like quality brought out through repeating phrases and melodic lines is Daniel Higgs.
The band's earliest work enjoyed the same fidgety, reggae-influenced sound of their peers in Fugazi. But as the band went on, Higgs' more spiritual side began to take hold and a hypnotic, hymn-like tone began to infect both the lyrics and music. Simple melodic phrases are repeated over and over again with little change, giving Higgs a chance to spin prayers and mantras over the top.
Higgs has only expanded on these ideas in his solo work (Lungfish hasn't recorded any new material in about seven years). Take, for example, the title track of his 2010 release Say God. Over 10 minutes, Higgs returns to that titular phrase ("In throes of mounting bliss/say God/on guard before the mirror/say God, amen") in a spoken word, almost chant-like patter, as a withered synth and feedback melody floats below his voice.
Both Higgs and Reich are able to transform listeners with some impressively simple melodic tools. And as Cage avers, you may not catch the power and beauty of what the two artists are attempting right away, but if you stick with it, you might find yourself moved beyond measure.
SEE IT: Third Angle Music Ensemble performs Reich-analia at The Atrium at Montgomery Park, 2701 NW Flanders St., on Saturday, Nov. 10. 7:30 pm. $10-$30. All ages. Daniel Higgs plays Cherry Sprout Produce, 722 N Sumner St., on Thursday, Nov. 8, with Arrington de Dionyso and Marisa Anderson. 7:30 pm. $6 suggested donation. All ages.