Steve Reich's Pendulum Music

An experience that unifies the senses.

Great design often comes from the ethos behind it, which is driven by the designer’s philosophy and outlook on life. The minimalist philosophy that shaped a lot of great design from the mid 20th century and later can also be seen in other disciplines. Around the same time I was introduced to Braun’s 20th century work I was lucky enough to see works by Philip Glass and Steve Reich as part of Glasgow’s Minimal music festival. I loved seeing the way that one set of ideas could be implemented in a different field. So having developed an interest in minimalist design and music, I was excited to see a recording of a performance by Steve Reich when visiting the Institut Valencià d'Art Modern.

Institut Valencià d'Art Modern.

The performance involves setting a number of microphones into oscillation. Each microphone is suspended over an amplifier which is set to a volume such that feedback occurs when the microphone approaches the amplifier, each amplifier is connected to a common loud speaker. Once set up, the performance begins with each performer pulling back a microphone, then they all release their microphone’s in unison. This results in a series of feedback pulses which gradually shifts in and out of phase, slowly becoming faster, until eventually all the microphones come to rest, each producing a single tone.


Steve Reich's notes on the performance.

I love the simplicity of the idea and how effective it is. I find it all very hypnotic, watching the pendular motion of the microphones while listening to the tones produced and noticing the patterns created by the slight phase shift. While all this is happening I see the sinusoidal wave forms in my head. It creates an experience by unifying senses which I think is fascinating, you hear what you are seeing, see what you are hearing and at the same time I’m visualising the waveforms.


I thought it might be interesting to download the mp3 file and see the output decibels against time. This would obviously just be similar to the signal from the loud speaker which is the combination of the signals from the amplifiers, i.e. a number of sinusoidal waveforms multiplied together. Since it is in dB it is the logarithm of a ratio but despite this abstraction of the signals I still think it is pretty interesting to see.

The dB levels of the mp3 file.

Although some might not consider it design, it does a lot of things design does: it stimulates the senses and is the implementation of an idea driven by a philosophy. I’ve been talking about it pretty seriously but there is also an element to it that kind of just makes want to laugh and I’m not sure what it is, it might be because the idea is so simple but also very obscene, I find satisfying to watch but at the same time I have to ask myself why the hell am I watching this. I can see it working as an installation in a science museum to illustrate oscillatory motion and waveforms. It would have been inspiring in first year when completing a project that was exhibited in the Glasgow Science Museum, the installation simply had to produce a noise in an interesting way.