It’s currently my holidays, and I have no plans to blog about anything serious during this time. So I’ll write about music and arts instead.

I recently went to a concert to hear Steve Reich’s one long piece, called Drumming, performed by a New York musical collective So Percussion. Reich’s work wasn’t previously unfamiliar for me, but I’ve never heard it live before and only had some surface knowledge about him being a minimalist-academic and an important figure in NYC musical avantgarde of the sixties. For me “minimalism” in this context meant that his work is about getting rid of decorative elements in music — such as melody — in an attempt to get to the music’s essential bare bones. Whereas “academism” was about keeping the musical semantics aligned with the academic tradition, i.e. that even this stripped bare music has certain expressive qualities that cannot be substituted with something else, like silence, for example.

Drumming essentially consists of short repeating percussion patterns, gradually shifting relative to each other and slowly mutating by either adding a beat (substituting the rest with the beat) or removing a beat. And that’s all.

When performed though, Drumming exhibits much more complicated effect on listener that it may seem from this description. First of all, although the tempo of the piece is not changing — and this is meant in the strictest sense, as the entire structure of composition depends on the rigid rhythm, — two repeating patterns with a small phase difference between them effectively sound slower compared to the same patterns later, when their phase shift reaches about half of the phase. This makes the music sound slow and then gradually get certain “merry galloping” quality, very unexpected from a simple piece like this.

Second interesting effect was the “roar” that echoing percussion establish in the large concert hall — this one is completely absent in the recordings I previously heard. It sounds like a constant standing sound wave formed by precussion sounds being reflected by the auditoriums walls. It sometimes “swallows” simple vocalizations in Drumming or tricks your listening into thinking you actually hear some sounds when there’s nothing to produce them.

Have a look for yourself (the video below only shows a part of a first movement, the entire piece lasts more than an hour):

Both described aspects of Drumming are interesting to me because they deal with our perception of music. Reich knew that the listener’s brain tends to group close beats together into one, and although musicians are instructed to play as strictly to the rhythm as they can, your listening perception just can’t help itself and assigns subjective qualities to shifting patterns, like “jumpy” or “restrained”. Note that musicians in other styles are fully aware of this effect. In funk and soul, slight off-tempo beats are used to give the music special groove, that pulls the listener ahead. Reich’s rhythms are restricted a very formal scheme, that looks cold and austere and certainly has no groove, but it also opens an extra dimension of the piece’s richness when off-tempo beats appear and disappear.

If this all sounds like a useless theoretical exercise to you, here’s another example of using mechanisms of perception from a different field.

Arnolfini Portrait - Jan van Eyck

This is Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait, dating from 15th century. This masterpiece warrants a much longer description of its qualities, but I’ll focus on very few of them here. Van Eyck’s goal with this and other paintings was to reach the ultimate levels of authenticity, i.e. he wanted to make his paintings looks exactly like the reality they depict. Now, we, humans, can only get an image of reality through our sensory devices, like eyes (or ears). Does Arnolfini Portrait, being as detailed as it is, triggers exactly the same reaction in our eyes as the scene where it was painted?

To a modern viewer it’s obvious that it doesn’t. Despite putting immense number of details into the painting and strictly adhering to the rules of perspective (only have a look at the spherical mirror!), Van Eyck lacked some understanding of visual perception that was only established much later, with the invention of photography and understanding, among other things, what “depth of focus” is. Have a look at a much later painting by Gerhard Richter, called Betty.

Gerhard Richter - Betty

This is not a photo, it’s a painting, which certainly looks more “real”. Note that the human eye doesn’t have a depth of focus the way photographic camera does, and the “blurring” in our perception of reality is not due to some optical effect, it’s a property of our visual cortex.

So what are the similarities between Reich and Richter in their respective fields? In the case of Gerhard Richter, he advanced our understanding of painting to a new level by reading into the visual properties of the photographs. Steve Reich advanced our understanding of music by restricting his practice of composing to some formal rules. In both cases, it took a genius to see beyond the medium and into perception mechanisms for it.