Zen Sounds 039: Samuel Reinhard
»Repetitions« is the perfect tape for the first weeks of the new year
Silence is central to Buddhists and Stoics alike; sages across history have praised its healing power. John Cage even famously composed a music piece consisting of little more than silence.
I’ve always loved silence, but living in a big city, it’s so hard to come by, even if you seek it out actively. Therefore, I dedicated a whole chapter to that never-ending search in my book »Zen Style«.
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We can contribute to the noise, or we can contribute to silence. A proverbial Zen teaching reminds us to only open our mouths, if what we are going to say is more important than the silence we are going to destroy.
To me, this does not apply to speech only, but to music as well. I used to always listen to something, even if it was just MTV running in the background, but these days I’d rather listen to nothing at all than to some dull, boring wallpaper music.
Last summer, when we were renovating our country house and didn’t have any internet connection yet, we brought an old school FM radio, but after a while, the soulless chart fodder annoyed the hell out of us. We’d soon resort to working in silence, listening to nothing but birdsong and the distant sound of agricultural tractors.
So there’s music that’s destroying the silence without adding any value, but there’s a rare type that seems to enhance it as well. I’ve been on the lookout for such music in the last weeks, as it seems to fit with my overall mood at the start of the new year.
And then I found this tape.
Samuel Reinhard – »Repetitions«
(Präsens Editionen / Hallow Ground, 2022)
Human recommendation systems
Samuel Reinhard’s »Repetitions« has been on constant rotation since my friend Martin Brugger, co-founder of the great Squama label, recommended it to me a few weeks ago. He said that he thought of me while listening to it, and that he really liked it.
Funnily enough, a day after he sent the link, I heard it in a radio mix by Flora Yin-Wong, a sound artist and DJ from London whose work I adore.
And then, another few days later, I talked to the pianist and composer Carlos Cipa over coffee, and guess what: He was raving about »Repetitions« as well.
These are the type of non-algorithmic recommendation systems that indicate a record might be something I’m actually looking for, which would definitely prove true in this case.
Step into a world
»Repetitions« is a work for three pianos. All four »movements« are moving along in a snail-like pace, each one slightly over nine minutes long, carrying lots of space between the played notes.
Still, the composition is carefully crafted, the piano motifs overlapping in specific intervals without actually being in sync. That way, the melodies almost accidentally connect with each other, and seem to be forming a certain bond over the course of the piece.
It’s a deeply melancholic piece of music, but it doesn’t rely upon any overly obvious mood signifiers – it just exists in its own space, its very own world created over the duration of 37 minutes and 12 seconds.
Playing the recording means stepping into this world, but like the pianos, it soon overlaps with your actual experienced reality, and after a while it’s not entirely possible anymore to separate the two.
Who is Samuel Reinhard?
The Swiss composer of the piece, 42-year old Samuel Reinhard, lives in Bern and New York. A quick internet research didn’t bring up too much information, other than that he graduated in Music and Media Arts in 2015, seems like a pretty reclusive artist (which, again, I always have a soft spot for), and likes to quote Morton Feldman.
According to an interview he gave to a Swiss newspaper in 2020, at that point he earned his living producing and writing songs for global pop stars. He had formed a production team with renowned dancehall and hip-hop producer Dre Skull, dividing his time between Switzerland and the US.
These activities allowed Reinhard to finance his more personal, artistic works under his civil name, at least during past years.
»Repetitions« seems to be the most recent entry in his discography, each recording released in small physical quantities, on vinyl or cassette, on Swiss boutique label Präsens Editionen.
The piece has been performed live in Lucerne with three pianists in 2022, on the evening before its release day.
A slow-burning incense stick
One of the reasons I haven’t gotten tired of playing »Repetitions« yet is that with each listen, the music seems to disclose nuances and textures I hadn’t noticed before. These might be related to the actual notes, to other noises between those notes, or to moments of silence, of which there are plenty.
It’s not a new concept to leave traces of ambience and side noises in the recording, not erasing the notion of a specific moment being recorded and therefore making its characteristic features part of the piece – but here it’s applied in an astonishing subtlety.
I’ve been playing »Repetitions« in different settings, and it never failed to reinforce an earnest sense of calmness and clarity, without feeling drowsy at all.
I guess that’s what Brian Eno really meant when he gave his famous definition of ambient music having to be »as ignorable as it is interesting«. I always believed that he didn’t refer to the boring wallpaper music I was referencing earlier – it’s just that the music he was imagining didn’t impose itself and its concepts on the listener. In his words: »Ambient Music is intended to induce calm and a space to think.«
A suitable comparison might be a perfume hanging in a room – an idea once expressed by William Basinski who is said to have played his own music for 24 hours per day in his Williamsburg loft Arcadia, where he was living and working for many years.
In this analogy, top 40 radio might equivalent to a bunch of stinking old Magic Trees, while »Repetitions« compares to an elegant, slow-burning incense stick.
It does not so much alter the mood of a space but intensify it, and in this rare quality, it joins Basinski’s recent work with British sound artist Janek Schaefer, the outstanding »… on reflection«, that I had on repeat a few months ago.
»I like the spot in the background. The spotlight never attracted me. I don’t have any interest in all those self-marketing games you are forced into playing as an artist today. I’d rather sit in the studio and make music.« (Samuel Reinhard, 2020)
The solo piano record often runs the risk of slipping off into kitschy mood playlist material. Notwithstanding its perfume qualities, »Repetitions« is clearly something else, and having curated this type of playlists for years in the past, I seriously doubt that it would work in such a context. It’s too slow, the tracks are too long, there’s too much silence, and the overlapping melodies are not sweet enough.
Which makes it all the more interesting and suitable for focused listening. »Repetitions« indebts a lot of its magic to the minimalist structure and the small, incremental changes happening during its extremely slow unfolding.
This is music as pure form; it doesn’t need to convince you of its existence or, even worse, convince you of certain intentions the composer had in mind. Its allure lies wide open for everyone to access – you just have to be willing and able to listen.
»Repetitions« is the perfect music for the new year’s first weeks, starting calm but focused into another orbital period of our Earth swirling around the Sun (another repeating structure, after all).
In these days, we allow ourselves to feel newborn in a Buddhist sense. We feel we are able to start all over again, with new hopes and aspirations, and we can finally leave all the bad habits behind us.
As a matter of fact, we can increase our mindfulness every day, every minute and every moment.
»Repetitions« gently reminds us of that important aspect of life.
One more thing
While we’re here: Ivo Dimchev from Stereofox invited me to his Fox Tales podcast. We spoke for an hour about this newsletter, Deep Listening, the so-called lo-fi scene and my journey as a journalist and editor for the past 20 years. Thanks, Ivo!
© 2023 Stephan Kunze
"a slow-burning incense stick"
that is so beautifully put and the album is just incredible. other works by reinhard are equally as good in my opinion.