Composers and musical styles come in and out of fashion for the oddest of reasons. Now, the great 20th-century avant-gardist Steve Reich is back in the news because – of all things – a computer game. Actually it's not a computer game, it's a music learning app. Or a scientific study. It is all of the above.
The app is perfectly modern and delightful. It's called Steve Reich's Clapping Music. It is available only for iPhone or iPad, and it's free. It is simple: It plays a famous piece of experimental music composed by Reich in 1972. This piece is performed by two people clapping their hands. The first performer claps an African rhythm over and again. The second starts off clapping in synch with the first, and then, after a few bars, changes the pattern by one beat. The second clapper continues to shift the pattern by one beat, until, after 144 bars, the two clappers are in unison again.
It is easier to understand if you hear it done. Still, it is difficult to perform, as it requires intense concentration and co-ordination. It is easy to screw up.
The idea is to get you to tap the screen in time with the claps. The app does this by showing you a visual pattern of moving dots: You follow the dots and can see where a clap is coming up. The principle is like that of the bouncing bean over the lyrics in the karaoke machine, but it's tricky. And if you make a mistake, the game shuts down for a full minute before it allows you to start again.
What's the point of it? There are several. First, it is a concentration game. Second, it teaches you how to perform this piece. Third, it serves to promote other works by the 79-year-old Reich – after you have completed the game, a set of references and links appear.
But there are deeper motives for its design. It is part of a research project at Queen Mary University of London that's studying how people learn music, particularly rhythm. The app will gather, anonymously, the game-play data to see how players progress through the game. Users will also be asked to fill in short questionnaires about their musical listening habits. Some will be selected to participate in longer surveys. The idea is to someday ascertain if gaming can enhance people's appreciation of the arts. (I think I can tell what the answer is going to be.)
So that's cool. But it is also cool and not at all surprising that Reich – born in 1936, the child of early 20th-century avant-gardism (he initially studied and duplicated Schoenbergian 12-tone music), the product of the hippy-dippy 1960s art culture in which listening to hours of drones, meditating and tripping on drugs were all part of intellectual experience – would be selected as the raw material for such an experiment.
His music turns out to be of the moment. The idea of music made purely of percussion, music that involves a slow set of small changes to a pattern over time, music that is repetitive and minimal, well, that hardly needs explaining in 2015. (It reminds me of the old joke attributed to the British comedian Marcus Brigstocke: "If Pac-Man had affected us as kids, we'd all be running around in dark rooms, munching pills and listening to repetitive electronic music.")
The affinity between this cerebral music and machinery was clear from the outset. Reich was always interested in tape-looping – an idea that became known as sampling – and he worked with pioneers of electronic instruments such as Morton Subotnick. Only now has the machinery actually caught up to the ideas of 1972: Computer screens can show us the patterns that so fascinated these old guys, in dazzling, visual ways.
Here's another example that uses the technology that 20th-century avant-gardists were salivating for: There's an app for iPhone that lets you record four minutes and 33 seconds of the sound around you, and then upload it it to share with other users who have done the same. It's an homage to 4'33", the musical piece consisting entirely of silence, imagined by John Cage in 1952.
The Clapping Music app is in itself a musical instrument. It also uses, as do many new electronic instruments, a new kind of score: It represents the beats in a graphic that is not conventional staff notation.
Many new music generators are pads that use grids and lights to create a more intuitive interface with scales. (So do video games such as Guitar Hero.) The pads even pre-program scales so that you never create dissonance. They may well be replacing the five-line musical staff in the long term. All this is to say that video games aren't necessarily bad for the brain.