Samuel Reinhard is a Swiss composer based in New York City. For V/A and our ongoing focus theme “Immediacy,” Reinhard reflects on a transformative experience following a failed residency in the Mojave desert. Dealing with the aftermath led him to the discovery of a number of guiding principles that have since become central to his practice. Stillness, silence, slowness, and repetition allow him to not only find new ways of composing music but also to create new bonds between those performing the music and those listening to it.
In spring 2019 I embarked on what was supposed to be a month-long self-directed residency in the Mojave desert. My intention was to carve out time and space for myself to produce new work — in nature, without the noise and the distractions of everyday life.
I’d been contemplating a series of new pieces, radically different from my previous work: a suite of sparse, repetitive compositions, almost static in nature, with just the slightest hints of development. I’d imagined weightless, non-directional music. Tapestry-like structures that would unfold at their own pace. All of which I’d envisioned as a departure from the aggressive and forceful kind of sculpting of sound that had long dominated my process.
Residencies are widely and perhaps romantically considered an opportunity that provides artists with time, space, and resources to work, away from the restrictions and pressures of everyday life. By all accounts, it is a rarified, ludicrously privileged existence modality. And for such reasons, fleeting by design. But this notional ideal, can also be a particular hell, ripe for a very specific kind of hell-making. You’re suddenly faced with You. Residency You. The transformed You that the residency was supposed to bring forth. Residency artist is the kind of artist you could be if you were only allowed to focus on your work and nothing else. There are no more excuses. Distractions are excuses. In their absence you should be the artist you think you’re capable of being – and fear that you aren’t.
Joshua Tree, Mojave Desert
Settling into my makeshift studio in a lovely mid-century-modern house just outside of Joshua Tree National Park, I immediately noticed a sense of discomfort and distress welling up inside of me. My eagerness to produce confronted with the desert’s silence and endless open space turned out to be a shockingly potent concoction for instant anxiety. I was overwhelmed by a kind of internal sensory overload — something I imagine an anechoic chamber might produce. The desert’s proverbial deafening silence turned my ambitions into an impenetrable wall of noise.
Instead of slowly developing a process, I found myself in a kind of frenzied panic. I was restlessly creating and discarding sketch after sketch. The afternoons I spent driving around, listening to my fragmented ideas, and testing them out against the desert backdrop while nervously skipping through my music library and comparing my seedlings with other people’s finished work. Displeased and increasingly discouraged, I could feel my anxiety ramping up in unprecedented ways. Desperately trying to combat my misery, I doubled down: producing at an even more frantic pace and examining other people’s creations in forensic detail. I spent my evenings poring over scores, listening to pieces that felt adjacent to what I was trying to achieve and reading about people’s processes and the theories underlying their work — all in the hope of finding a roadmap for my own ideas.
For the first few nights I barely slept. I was not only beginning to fear my work but increasingly also my surroundings and the remoteness of the desert house. I was consumed by my varied shortcomings but also by persistent phantasies of violent home-invasions and similar scenarios. Within just a few days my anxiety and general despair had reached unparalleled heights, and I felt completely paralyzed. Of the month-long residency I lasted five days.
Highland Park, Los Angeles
Figuring that returning to the comforting bosom of a city would be the best remedy to my ailments, I drove back to LA. Upon my return I was overcome with a sense of absolute defeat and exhaustion. Immediately getting back to work was inconceivable. For two weeks I couldn’t do anything that was even remotely considered work. You could say I pretty much didn’t do anything to speak of at all. I deleted all social media apps off my phone, didn’t listen to any music, only read blithe fiction, if at all, and slept for ten to twelve hours each night. Every morning I went for the same hour-long neighborhood walk, then sat at a café, drinking tea and squinting at the sun for an hour or two. After lunch I napped. Later in the afternoon I went for a leisurely hike in the Verdugo foothills. After that I usually took to aimlessly driving around, marveling at the traffic and city lights, before stopping at a diner for a bite.
From a productivity standpoint I was doing absolutely nothing; I was getting nowhere; I was being still. In silence. The days seemed identical, save for minute changes in weather and mood. About a week into this routine a sense of calm and refreshment began to engulf my entire being. It was as if my brain and nervous system were slowly being recalibrated.
After two weeks I decided to spend an hour each morning of no-stakes tinkering with musical ideas. The trip was a wash. I had entirely let go of any ambitions to create something meaningful in this time. So one pivotal morning I opened a file of previously recorded piano improvisations, sat, and listened. What I experienced was miraculous. I was able to listen with my entire sensorium again. I’d spent years never just listening — rather listening while also analyzing, comparing, and wondering how to modify or commodify what I was hearing. I was stunned by the richness of these softly struck, slowly decaying individual piano notes — the most basic musical building blocks. On a whim I chopped up the decaying tail-end of a single note, repeated it, and then layered it with another, and yet another… What emerged was an animate landscape of harmonies, slowly cycling, colliding, and washing away before appearing again in ever-new constellations. I had barely done anything! I simply listened, then gently nudged a few notes to start their respective cycles. Over the following days I repeated this process three more times, never spending more than an hour in front of my computer, doing nothing more than listening to what was already there, then lightly prodding sounds into directions they seemed to want to go. After four days I had the blueprint for what would become the four movements of my album Miniatures pretty much all laid out.
The music I was discovering was defined by a kind of inner equilibrium, harmonically and structurally. These pieces were resting in themselves; they weren’t striving to get anywhere; they were non-directional and in a sense being still. Furthermore, they were defined by slowness, by a tranquil and measured pace, and the driving organizational principle underlying these compositions was repetition. So in a sense the drastic changes I had haphazardly implemented into my days upon having fled the desert were directly mirrored in these pieces I was unearthing. I was reminded of Morton Feldman’s famous response to Stockhausen’s question as to what his secret was: “Sounds are very much like people. And if you push them, they push you back. So, if I have a secret: don’t push the sounds around.” Is this what he meant? Had I somehow unwittingly arrived at a place where I wasn’t “pushing sounds around” anymore? I was equally delighted and perplexed, and would spend the months and eventually years to come trying to decipher what exactly had happened to me and my creative process between the horrors of the Mojave desert and my subsequent return to LA.
The Pursuit of Constant Making
I can confidently say now that long before embarking on my desert adventure — likely for many years — I was already exhausted. From the moment I entered art school, about seven years prior to this trip, I was caught up in a frenzied cycle of simultaneously soaking up and ingesting vast amounts of information, ranging from theory, to history, and the work of contemporaries, while also feeling the urge to immediately absorb these inputs into my own practice. All without ever giving myself time to digest and truly let any of this information sink in. I felt the need to constantly produce. I jumped on any and all opportunities that presented themselves: installations in galleries, collaborations with visual artists, record releases under various monikers, writing music for TV, working on other people’s music etc., etc. And whenever I wasn’t producing, I was either at clubs, openings, traveling from Biennale to Art Basel to documenta and what not, partying, networking. In short, I was so focused and determined to “make it” that it didn’t occur to me to spend any real time contemplating what it actually was that I wanted to make – and maybe also why I wanted to make anything in the first place.
You cannot shit while you eat! This fundamental oversight, this intrinsic flaw in how I had approached my process of creating, paired with a perpetually nursed exhaustion, came crashing down on me with brute force once I was faced with the quietude, solitude, and limitless time at my disposal, that my Mojave retreat had provided. The remedy for this crisis presented itself in the form of stillness, silence, slowness, and repetition — of doing nothing. Doing nothing is the act of remaining conscious of exactly where you are. And it is the employment of these practices that led me to a place where truly “nothing needed to be achieved and where the present moment was sufficient,” to quote the art critic and author Kay Larson. It’s an elusive place I’ve ever since been encircling and occasionally have managed to revisit. So what exactly are the practices that somehow lead me there?
Naturally there is no such thing as truly doing nothing or actually being completely still. What I mean by stillness is that nothing I was doing could have been considered productive. Nothing I was doing felt like it might further my craft, my process, or career. There was no sketching out ideas, no scribbling down a quick thought or note. No documenting what I was doing, experiencing, or thinking. No spending time online or on my phone. The artist and writer Jenny Odell states that “for someone in the creative field it can almost be hard to believe that you continue to exist when you’re not producing or publicly saying something. But you do.” Indeed, what actually happened once I momentarily pressed pause on these default mechanisms is that my attention shifted — suddenly and quite drastically.
Once I had temporarily overcome my compulsion to produce, communicate, or ingest in service of productivity, my brain changed. Suddenly I had the bandwidth to receive. I was observing my surroundings and just processing what my senses were picking up. Noticing what was going on around me but also inside of me. Listening to the sounds of my neighborhood on my daily walks, getting acquainted with the various dogs and the backyards they occupied. Taking in the smells of the soil, flowers, and plants on my hikes, but also observing the ebb and flow of my own body. After serendipitously following this practice for a few days, I noticed my brain lose its rigidity, my mind feeling more spacious, my general disposition lighter and more aligned with and grounded within the cycles of my body.
As John Cage once and for all settled with his silent piece “4’33”,silence is a purely theoretical construct. But incapacitated by my wholesale exhaustion and overstimulation, I found myself gravitating to a kind of silence that I realized had previously been largely absent from my life. I remained silent insofar as I pressed pause on being on socials and on constantly engaging with people over text and email. Simultaneously I stopped exposing myself to the constant stream of noise in the form of books, movies, music, news, the internet, that I had been steadily providing my brain with for as long as I can remember.
I came to realize that this accumulated and sustained lack of silence in my life had rendered me somewhat incapable of actually listening. Listening is paying attention. When listening, a person hears what others are saying or doing and tries to understand it. The act of just listening is receiving information without mentally composing a response. It seems that somewhere along the way I had stopped listening without instantly reacting. I had also stopped listening to my immediate environment, to my intuition, and to my own incipient ideas.
Temporarily breaking with my inclination for constant chatter proved to be a miraculous adjustment allowing for a kind of inward communion with myself that had been largely absent from both my life and my practice.
Once I had found myself back in LA, spat out by the desert, I was forced to give up any and all ambitions of getting anything done. I had failed at this residency. I no longer had any deadline. I ceased to strive. And with the privilege of all this time at my disposal, I stopped treating time as a rare commodity. As a matter of fact, I pretty much began to ignore it altogether. Once no longer beholden to (self-imposed) schedules and time constraints, my days began to unfold at a radically different pace – a much, much slower one.
I allowed each task to evolve at its own rhythm and allowed each undertaking to take the time it required. It was in this acceptance that I could find the restraint and self-possession not to bully sounds, not to force agendas on the music that ultimately resisted me. In this too, I ceased to strive.
Allowing slowness — not a predetermined allotted slower time but the actual relative measure — to govern my days seems to have been imperative in recalibrating the temporal relationships with and within my work. In order to welcome poise into my compositions, I had to let go of the rigidity and temporal scarcity which hitherto had been dominating my work and life. The composer Eliane Radigue, known for her slowly evolving pieces on the cusp of immobility, is rather explicit in her assessment that “time is of no importance.”
A circadian rhythm made itself known to me in my routines and shaped my days in LA. Patterns emerged. Then repeated. What resulted, shockingly, was not what I had feared in the abstract: boredom, mania. Instead, I experienced a sense of deep connection with my everyday activities and of being solidly grounded within my surroundings. The philosopher Byung-Chul Han explains this beautifully in his book The Disappearance of Rituals: “We can define rituals as symbolic techniques of making oneself at home in the world… They turn the world into a reliable place. They are to time what a home is to space: They render time habitable.”
This felt incredibly true for me and was informative as to why the residency — and truly my entire life leading up to this point — felt inhabitable and inhospitable. Han goes on to say: “Repetition discovers intensity in what provides no stimuli, in the unprepossessing, in the bland. The person who expects something new and exciting all the time, by contrast, overlooks what is already there.”
Repetition allows for deep attention. Already knowing what comes next eliminates concern for the future. In a state with no future the mind can be at ease in a way that allows to just perceive. Pulling the plug on feeding my compulsive cravings for continuously renewed stimulation opened up my perception to focus on what was already here. Fasting makes you taste your food again. It made me realize that the music I had forcefully been trying to summon into existence had in a sense been there all along – it was just waiting to be noticed.
Work After the Work After the Desert
After the forced application of these strategies to my life and seeing their effects on the work that immediately followed, I grew interested in explicitly integrating them in my practice — as guiding principles and compositional tools. This led to a fundamental paradigm shift not only in how I generally feel about my work but also in the manner I make it.
Repetition has become the primary organizational force in most of my compositions. My most recent piece “Repetitions (for Three Pianos)”, for example, is based on nothing more than three short melodic motifs, repeated for the entire duration of each movement. The three pianos that are playing are not in sync. Each of the three performers plays at their own respective pace. What unfolds is a stream of constantly evolving combinations of notes and harmonies. Nothing ever really changes, and yet you never hear the same thing twice.
Slowness is another critical aspect as I’ve realized that very interesting things can happen if I just give the musical material time to breathe. In the score for that same piano piece I instruct the players that “each figure should be played very slowly, gently, and in an introspective manner” and that “each figure should be allowed to ring out before the next repetition begins.”
This is where silence comes into play. Silence employed as a contrapuntal force in a way that ascribes those moments where something is being played and those where nothing is being played equal importance. This allows for the observation of a composition’s in-betweens, populated by resonances and the traces of notes being played by human bodies.
Lastly, stillness — doing nothing. In the sense that I’m spending most of my time working on a piece in a rather passive state of primarily listening. Stillness allows for restraint. When working with recorded material, but even more so when working with performers. In a sense, I had to learn to not push sounds around, in order to get to a place where I’m not pushing performers around.
Increasingly I’m experimenting with leaving it completely up to the performers of a piece to decide how much or how little they may play within an indicated period of time. In a sense also allowing them to do nothing and to just listen for periods of time as they are performing. I’ve found that this not only creates unforeseeable and sometimes profoundly beautiful musical results, but it also creates a kinship between the performer and the listener — where both engage in a deep and concentrated way of listening as a piece unfolds.
I like to think of these strategies, when employed as compositional tools, as a kind of invitation to the listener. An invitation to temporarily be still and to pay attention to the intricacies happening at the periphery of our perception once we settle in with stillness, repetition, and the slow unfolding of time.