WTF?! Wednesdays: Philip Glass, “Music With Changing Parts” (1970)

In a recent radio segment, NPR reported on an experiment conducted by University of Arkansas professor Elizabeth Margulis. She took a piece of music by 20th century composer Luciano Berio and, employing some music editing software, reordered bits and pieces of the work so that sections were repeated. The results? Listeners liked the edited piece much more than the original.

The radio show goes on to talk about the “mere exposure effect.” Apparently, evolutionary biology is at play here. We’re predisposed to be wary of new things, and mere exposure to them can change the way we feel about them, especially as the exposure is repeated over time.

Margulis doesn’t think that this is the only reason we respond positively to repetition. Another reason is that repetition frees up our attention so that we can observe other aspects of the music. Now this is really an interesting idea. I’ve often wondered why I’ve always been so attracted to the music of Philip Glass and Steve Reich. There are definitely parts of these composers’ compositions where my mind “detaches” from the notes to commune with the patterns and colors that seem to emerge.

Though Margulis didn’t speak of it, I’m pretty sure that there are some negative aspects of repetition as well. TheWife™, for example, is a fan of Mr. Glass. However, she cannot tolerate Music With Changing Parts. She says it makes her nervous. Nervous…annoyed…irritated…I’m sure she’s not the only one.

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Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski is a writer and music obsessive based out of the woods of central New Hampshire. A past contributor to Jazz.com, Blogcritics.org and Salon, he writes several weekly features including the Friday Morning Listen, (Cross the) Heartland, WTF! Wednesday, and Sparks Fly on E Street. Follow him on Twitter: @msaleski. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.