Rhys Chatham’s score for Robert Streicher’s solo dance, ‘Narcissus Descending,’ is a prerecorded electronic piece, but the composer manipulates his equipment throughout the performance. Most of the time the music consists simply of a single sustained note. Or at least it sounds like a single note at first. But as it drones on, you gradually get further and further into the sound, and begin to distinguish the different overtones. Then you get down to another level where you can perceive that the composer is subtly varying the volume of different overtones. Then your ears become sensitive to the different tonal qualities of each overtone, and you begin to hear beats (the pulsating effect which results when sound waves are not exactly in phase with each other). Gradually it draws you into a strange microscopic world where it is possible to hear acoustical details which are much too small to be perceived in normal musical contexts.
The style is related to other current approaches to electronic music, but is not really much like anything I have heard. The closest equivalent, I suppose, would be La Monte Young, who also uses tones that drone on endlessly. But while Young generally employs vocal tones or violin tones, and usually amplifies everything to a very high level, Chatham’s resources are purely electronic, and his volume never gets very loud.
The music has an intimate quality which seems appropriate to the solo dancer, and a dreamy feeling which fits the mythological subject. ‘Narcissus Descending’ begins with the dancer asleep at the back of the stage. Some very deliberate slow-motion walking and pantomimic sequences lead him to the moment when he falls in love with his reflection. The music shifts smoothly to some Bach orchestral music for a short middle section in which the dancing becomes more active. Then Chatham’s droning note returns and the dancer eases back to the more deliberate style of the beginning.
Perhaps the most fascinating thing about this kind of one-note music is not the little changes which the composer causes in the sound, but the additional ones which somehow seem to happen in one’s ear. Sometimes I found it hard to focus on some aspect of the sound which I knew, simply by the logic of what was going on, was acoustically present. Sometimes it was hard to tell if one thing was getting softer or if another thing was getting louder. Sometimes one of the overtones would change its color and it would sound like everything else was changing too. And often I could tell that something was changing, but would not be able to hear exactly what it was. Of course, it could be that as my ears become more accustomed to hearing music like this they will stop playing these weird tricks on me. But I have the feeling that illusions of this nature will always be created when pure electronic tones are sustained in a context of this nature.
We know quite a bit about optical illusions, but I have never heard the term ‘aural illusions.’ For some reason no one seems very interested in these phenomena, but they certainly exist, at least in electronic pieces like this one. Maybe someday there will be a musical equivalent of Josef Albers, who will work out a theory to explain how they happen. In the meantime, we can just listen and be pleasantly mystified.