Music is, in part, about experience. One’s appreciation of what sound can do in any form comes from knowledge and life. It’s impossible (or nearly so) to grasp what gives Coleman Hawkins’ tenor saxophone or Robert Pete Williams’ guitar their sounds without having dealt with what’s been thrown at you. That’s not to say one has to live as another might — composer Bill Dixon has said of wanting to sound like Charlie Parker, “Does that mean you want to live like Charlie Parker?” Still, the knowledge that comes not only from hearing a diverse range of music but also from traveling, seeing, knowing people, loving, losing, and gaining are critical to appreciating what sound and art are on a basic, personal level. Experience is not atomist, but gradual, reflecting back on itself and coming into view, objects and perceptions concrete yet malleable with the process of knowing. For example, while the interactions between a large Richard Serra cor-ten steel sculpture and its outdoor environment/viewer/experiencer (to co-opt a term of composer Anthony Braxton) or the varied interstices of a Donald Judd plexiglass and metal box are certainly “complete,” they’re only knowable through multivalent, lived interaction.
Minimal music, such as it is, might better be termed “process music,” because through the experience of listening and/or playing, subtle and not-so-subtle gradations of tone and structure become readily apparent. It is from living through the whole of the work as an individual that its definition can become knowable (in this sense, it’s not so different from improvised music). That goes for performance, too; saxophonist Dickie Landry, a frequent Philip Glass collaborator, called the music they played between 1968 and 1981 “maximal music,” deriding the concept of minimalism because of its anathema to the intensity and physical directness of the ensemble’s playing. By the same token, it would also be unfair to call the music of Austin, Texas-based electronic instrumentalist and composer Rick Reed “minimal” or even “drone,” even though both of those words have often been used to describe his work. It’s certainly rooted in the process of experience, a music that unfolds along the lines of fellow travelers Klaus Schulze and Christoph Heemann (name-checked in the closing title track). The Way Things Go is Reed’s latest document, consisting of two LPs’ worth of compositions dating between 2001 and 2010, and it’s his second record for Colin Andrew Sheffield’s Elevator Bath label. (The first, Dark Skies at Noon, is out of print.)
Utilizing analog synthesizers, sine waves, shortwave radio, and sampled field recordings, Reed’s landscape is dense with overlays, but each sound emerges naturally and seems tied — sometimes tautly, sometimes loosely — to proximal others. The waves that unfold in the opening “Mesmerism” are deep and somewhat akin to the vibrational frequencies of biofeedback, but they aren’t too deep; one still experiences them objectively, as things apart from indeterminate sensual pulses. They have inflection and personality that are derived naturally from Reed’s own experiences — a sense of character and uniqueness. “Capitalism: Child Labor” is an early high-water mark, merging analog buzz and whir with the glassine textures of vibraphones or tubular bells, which stem either from samples or from the Moog. Of course, the source itself is slightly beside the point; suffice it to say that the analog nature of the material encourages an emergent understanding of the humanity and keen orchestration that Reed’s sculpting brings. Composed as a soundtrack to the 2005 Ken Jacobs film of the same name, the piece feels as though it could be performed by an ensemble, albeit a very unified one. Harsh electronic blasts and obscured voices provide bookends to areas of waves, refractions, and gooey pulses of rockish fuzz. It’s imaginable that “Capitalism: Child Labor” could fit into a crisper slice of Krautrock ambience not too far from Ash Ra Tempel, while also being distinctively contemporary. Knob-twisting and crotchety flashes gradually merge and fall away to leave an area of near-singularity, coursing hums revealing stringy subtones and colliding layers before an abrupt conclusion.
Opening the second LP, turbine-like rumble, light tendrils of feedback, and organ-esque fluff that would make Gerd Zacher proud characterize “Hidden Voices Part One,” with the occasional passing blip among splayed-out tones a clue to their newer electric origin. The closing title composition pits glittery wash against layers of modulated feedback, a nattering growl at the heels of thin, gradated whines. Massive chords are their eventual replacement, monolithic and coarse and a sound that one could run one’s fingers over. A sudden shift brings out staggered chunks of thick and striated tones before the piece returns to its original stage, closing with a lengthy and gorgeous coda of bells, kalimba-like plucks, and clavichord bounce (or at least samples that give these instrumental impressions). It’s a fitting and full concluding piece, both in breadth and in title.
The Way Things Go is a self-effacing acknowledgement of process and its undeniable humanness. There are few electronic artists who go beyond the “organic” aspects of the field and into something so personal, folksy, and magnificent as Rick Reed does. Having seen him perform in a live setting, it can be a challenge to realize the level of intimacy — surprisingly — that is on offer with this particular recording. What differentiates The Way Things Go from some of its brethren is the sense of warmth and personality that imbues its masses of analog and digital electronics. Reed is not overpowering or bullish, nor is his work quaint, but it’s enough to know there is a person behind the sound meditating on loss and experience, bringing electronic music up through the ground.