Discover more from Zen Sounds
Zen Sounds 074: Samuel Reinhard
The New York based composer on slowness, social media, and his newest piece "Two Pianos and String Trio"
Before we start
I briefly want to thank those engaged readers that now support my work with a paid subscription. It truly means the world to me!
As a reminder, Zen Sounds will stay free, but paid subscribers get exclusive access to the full archive, and there will be occasional subscriber-only posts and other benefits. It is the most effective way to support my work.
After a quite hectic schedule including much traveling in September, the first month of autumn started rather calm. Sitting at my desk, overlooking our front garden, I am constantly reminded of the natural cycle of the seasons.
At the end of last year, I played a recording of Swiss composer Samuel Reinhard’s “Repetitions” on repeat in my home office. It helped me regain my focus, without being anywhere near as shallow as most of the music in so-called focus playlists.
What I enjoyed most was how Reinhard’s composition didn’t impose its mood or ideas on me – it merged with the ambience of the room, while leaving loads of “space to think”, as Brian Eno famously put it. I compared it here to “an elegant, slow-burning incense stick” that “does not so much alter the mood of a space but intensify it.”
Reinhard’s newest piece, “Two Pianos and String Trio”, is defined by a similar minimalism. It was recorded in a church in Copenhagen. “Moments of silence are okay,” the score reassures the performers. “They are welcome.”
John Cage thought and wrote a lot about silence, and famously wrote a completely silent piece (“4’33”). Pauline Oliveros and Éliane Radigue utilized extreme quietness in their compositions. ECM producer Manfred Eicher insists that every album on his label starts with exactly five seconds of silence. The music on ECM, founded in 1969, has been called “the most beautiful sound next to silence.”
In an age of streaming and social media, when everyone is constantly fighting for eyeballs and attention, a moment of silence might be perceived as a missed opportunity – something close to virtual death. If you stop producing noise, you cease to exist. Reinhard doesn’t seem to have these concerns.
When I reached out to him, the New York based composer got back to me suggesting that we conduct our interview over several emails, as “this would allow our conversation to unfold at a more measured and gentle pace... more in keeping with the kind of conversations one might have over the course of multiple walks or so, rather than the streamlined vibe of a business call.”
What a great idea, I thought. Here’s the full transcript of the written interview that happened over several weeks, lightly edited for readability.
A Slow Conversation with Samuel Reinhard
This type of conversation seems to mirror your compositional approach, doesn’t it?
Ha, I hadn’t thought of that. Maybe insofar as that in my work too, I like to establish simple systems based on a few rules or limitations, and then just letting things slowly develop and take their course.
I loved your essay „How The Desert Taught Me To Rest And Listen“. It echoed many ideas that have been quite crucial for my own personal development, for example Zen Buddhist philosophy, John Cage’s writings on „Silence“, the Deep Listening practices of Pauline Oliveros, and more. Who would you say has influenced you in that way – musicians, composers, artists or maybe even philosophers and writers?
I’m generally drawn to work that captures the complexities of human emotions and experiences with a very limited set of expressive devices. The painter Agnes Martin would be a great example in 20th century visual arts, Mark Rothko too, and in some way maybe also Robert Irwin and Walter de Maria. In the world of sound, the practices of people like Max Neuhaus, La Monte Young, William Basinski, Sarah Davachi and Éliane Radigue have all had a great impact on me. I feel like what connects these very diverse bodies of work is that they all somehow manage to unearth vast and complex worlds that seem to be, at first glance, one dimensional spaces. There are other composers whose work I enjoy tremendously for other reasons… Morton Feldman for his restraint, Harold Budd for his radical embrace of beauty.
As far as writers and thinkers go, there’s one particular text that resonated deeply with me in grad school: Bernhard Waldenfels’ “Die verändernde Kraft der Wiederholung” – which loosely translates as “the transformative powers of repetition”. I’d long been strangely attracted to repetition, and this beautiful essay somehow felt like the intellectual, philosophical affirmation of something I had been sensing on a gut level; that there is an entire hidden, and utterly magical world to be discovered in repetition. More recently, I’ve been enjoying the writing and thinking of Byung-Chul Han a great deal, and I also really like Jenny Odell’s work.
Huge fan of Jenny Odell as well! I’ve started reading some Byung-Chul Han lately. Both writers talk about the negative impact of social media and the attention economy on our lives and society. How do you as an artist deal with that aspect? It seems like many don’t see any other way than to give in to the current climate, where you have to do personal branding, be overly active on social media, and push your streaming profiles.
I believe to what extent an artist – or anyone really for that matter – wants to engage through these platforms is ultimately a very personal decision. I for one find it difficult to remain truly grounded in my work and my own day to day life, while overly exposing myself to social media, the 24-hour news cycle and communication technologies in general. I’ve found that I’m generally happier and feel better about myself and my work when I’m engaged with my immediate physical surroundings and the people in my life, rather than focusing on documenting my experiences for an audience, which to me always has an abstract and somewhat dissociative quality.
I like to think of the making of art as building little assemblages of mirrors and looking glasses through which we can observe our interior lives and the world around us. If the way I perceive and reflect those experiences in my work resonates with other humans, that is of course a wonderful feeling. But in a way this is almost just a really lovely and of course valuable bi-product of the process. Reaching an audience is never the primary motivation for me, when I set out to write a new piece.
Can we talk a bit about your biography at this point? You studied in Zurich, Bern and then later at Berklee in Boston. How would you say your development as a composer has been shaped by these different phases and places?
I began my studies with a Bachelor in Recording Arts. Those three years in Zurich were incredibly formative as I was able to develop my sound engineering skills and familiarize myself with the recording studio as a compositional tool.
I then went on to pursue a Masters in Contemporary Arts Practice in Bern, which was basically an interdisciplinary arts program at the intersection of visual arts, literature and experimental sound. This was probably the most important part of my formal education, as it allowed me to truly immerse myself in the history, philosophy and contemporary discourse of art and sound. It’s also where I encountered many of the artists and thinkers that would become influential for my own practice.
A couple years after completing my masters I decided to enroll at Berklee for a few semesters of composition and music theory. I never had any formal music theory training before and I found it increasingly weird to have spent my entire professional life working in music without the educational background. So I took a few composition and theory courses, including the study of harmony and counterpoint.
Do you actually play an instrument yourself?
I played the drums throughout my childhood and into my teens and I took a few years of piano lessons not too long ago. But I’m far from being proficient on either of these instruments. So in short, no, and I consider the recording studio my primary instrument.
What are some of your influences that don’t come from composition or „E-Musik“, as we like to say in German? As a teenager, you must have listened to some contemporary popular music as well… also, what are you listening to these days mostly when not playing classically composed music?
As a teenager in the early 1990s, I was hugely into East Coast rap, and later developed a massive obsession with dancehall and soundsystem culture in general. From there, my musical taste developed pretty neatly along the lines of Simon Reynolds’ “hardcore continuum”, before eventually veering off into more experimental territories.
These days, my listening habits are fairly eclectic. I listen to a lot of older indie and avant-pop like Arthur Russell, Cocteau Twins, Talk Talk, The Sundays et cetera, but I’m also into more experimental, contemporary song-based stuff like Grouper, Dean Blunt or HTRK for instance. There’s a fair amount of electronic music as well, I’m a big fan of Actress’ work for example, and at the gym I often just listen to whoever is on NTS. I also listen to a fair amount of contemporary rap on the radio, since that’s just built into the sonic fabric of the city, and I love listening to FM radio whenever driving or cooking.
In an interview, Caroline Polachek recently said something profound about ‘experimental’ music, stating that it can actually sound quite conservative these days, harking back to traditions that go back to at least the 1950s, while pop music truly changes its overall sound every few years. What’s your take on that?
Hmm, I’m not sure about the implication of stagnation in experimental music. Of course there are certain practices and composition techniques that are in a sense rooted in 20th century traditions – I would in some ways consider my own work among them – but on the other hand, there has been so much revolutionary development in so many avenues just because of technology alone. That said, I do completely agree with the notion that pop music is probably the most exhilarating musical field in terms of perpetual renewal and constant radical changing.
You gave an interview in 2020 talking about your production work on mainstream hip-hop and dancehall records. I think it’s important to hear about how artists and composers actually make a living these days. I recently linked to this essay from Max Alper – any thoughts maybe?
A great essay, and such an important topic! To use Max Alper's terminology, I’m probably a kind of hybrid between a “lifer” and a “dayjobber”. I come from a working class/middle-class background, my great-grandparents were factory workers and farmers, my grandparents were blue collar, my mom is a teacher and my dad is an audio engineer. So unfortunately the “independent wealth” route wasn’t on the table. But I’ve had the tremendous privilege of being able to somehow (and often times just barely) make a living in and around music since leaving high school. From working at record stores and deejaying in the early aughts, to working at radio stations as a sound engineer and producing jingles for many years, and on to working as an engineer and producer in the field of global pop music for the second half of the 2010s.
When the pandemic hit, I decided to take a leap of faith and just see what happens if I’d take a break from production and engineering work and dedicate my time entirely to my own compositional practice. Naturally, there is a long list of incredible privileges that allowed me to do so. First of all I didn’t have any student debt, as tuition in Switzerland is basically free. Switzerland’s unemployment benefits during the pandemic and my partner’s steady income were another huge factor, and most importantly, Switzerland has a long tradition of generous public arts funding, which has been a crucial financial pillar throughout my career and to this day, in the form of work grants, stipends, residencies.
I loved how “Repetitions” allowed so much space to breathe, and at the same time it kind of merged with the ambience of the room. I found a similar quality in your more recent composition “Two Pianos and String Trio“. How would you describe the differences and similarities in approaching these two pieces?
The main difference is that in “Two Pianos and String Trio” there is an improvisational component. In “Repetitions” the three players each play three fully notated motifs, and simply repeat these at their own pace for the duration of the piece. In “Two Pianos and String Trio”, there is a fully notated motif to be played in the left hand for each piano player, but for the right hand there is just a pool of notes from which the player may choose and play within designated time brackets. The same goes for the string players: they are assigned a pool of notes from which they may choose, and they are free to play as much or as little as they wish within their designated time brackets.
Another big difference I would say is the quality of the recording space. “Repetitions” was recorded in a small studio, which in combination with extremely close-up mic positions made for a very intimate sound, almost as if positioning the listener inside the pianos. “Two Pianos and String Trio” was recorded in a church which obviously has very different acoustic properties. We still had microphones positioned very close to the instruments, but there were also room mics positioned further way, which added another spatial layer to the recording.
How did you find that former church in Copenhagen?
I chose the space based on a recording by my friend Vincent Yuen Ruiz I really liked. I thought the strings would benefit from the larger space and its slightly longer reverb time. What I didn’t fully consider was just how quiet my pieces were, and that the church was not sound-proofed in the way a recording studio would be. And so when I first heard the recording and realized how much the outside world penetrated these church walls in the form of birdsong and other ambiance sounds, I was taken aback and kind of regretted not having opted for a studio instead. The longer I listened to the recording though, the more I warmed to the fact that it is after all the composition’s quietude and porousness that allows the outside world to seep in. And ultimately I think that makes for a really beautiful kind of merging of acoustic layers that go beyond the score, but are nonetheless in keeping with the porous and indeterminate aspects I intended for the piece.
“Two Pianos and String Trio” was released on October 6, 2023, and is available on cassette and as a digital file from Bandcamp via Präsens Editionen, and it’s streaming on platforms like Spotify and Apple Music.
One more thing
Talking about Caroline Polachek – what’s so great about her is that she’s reaching a fairly big and mostly young audience with her experimental take on contemporary pop. The 38-year old started out in the Brooklyn indie rock scene, then associated herself with the hyperpop movement in the second half of the 2010s. She’s now established herself in the lineage of art pop auteurs between Kate Bush and Rosalía, Björk and Charli XCX.
While I do enjoy Polachek’s music, its maximalist production – courtesy of PC Music member Danny L Harle – can definitely have a slightly overwhelming and even distracting effect. Maybe that’s why her Tiny Desk Concert kept me glued to the screen for the full 18 minutes. These acoustic arrangements of songs from her acclaimed 2023 album “Desire, I Want To Turn Into You” are so much fun to listen to, and they still sound adventurous and sophisticated, not to mention the singer-songwriter’s incredible vocal range and control.
© 2023 Stephan Kunze