I set out to explore the artistic and emotional interaction between human and machine by documenting my response to painting a portrait of Steve Reich on an iPad while listening to his famous compositions. My hypothesis was that the transcendental state I felt while listening to his avant-garde music combined with the detailed process of painting his portrait would cause me to have a deeper emotional attachment to him as a person. Over a three-day period I painted while listening to nine compositions written by Steve Reich, including Drumming, Runner, Clapping Music, It’s Gonna Rain, Sextet, Music for 18 Musicians, Tehillim, Six Marimbas, and Four Organs. I developed an interest in painting Reich after attending the “Bang on a Can” marathon held at Mass MoCA this past summer. During the festival I heard Sextet, Radio Rewrite and Runner played by talented young musicians from around the world dying to perform and get approval from the master himself. After speaking with many of the young musicians, it became apparent that his work both inspired, challenged and influenced future generations. At the end of the 6-hour marathon, Steve Reich appeared to say a few insightful words about his work and fellow collaborators. It appeared that he was a matter-of-fact, unassuming person who let his work speak for itself. His mystery, career, legacy and loyal following sparked my interest and led me to paint his portrait.
As an iPad artist, I’ve painted over 280 portraits of celebrities who have inspired me through their music, fashion, or legacy: Prince, The Pope, Queen Elizabeth, and RuPaul, to name a few. I began Reich’s portrait listening to 1971’s Drumming, and with each stroke of the Apple Pencil against the iPad's screen, I found myself more and more in sync with the rhythm of the music. When the drumming first began I felt adrenaline run through my body and a wave of fear came over me. The fear soon decreased, however, when my ears adjusted and the drums became background noise, after a time fading into the relaxing sound of xylophones, reminding me of my childhood xylophone toy. Time began to fly as I got more involved in the painting and before I knew it the music came to an abrupt stop. After becoming so accustomed to the sounds of repetition, the sudden stop left me bewildered and frantically searched for another song to play. I found Four Organs to be my favorite piece by Reich. Painting to this piece kept me awake and alert, invested in the loud repetitive organ and building chords. Strangely, this piece reminded me of the organs I heard growing up in the Christian church—but on acid.
This experience made me aware of certain similarities between the work of Reich and my own, one being the paradoxical relationship of human and machine. Reich uses technology such as 1960 Wollensak tape recorders to splice and manipulate tape loops in compositions like It’s Gonna Rain, and his acoustic works sound almost digital in their mechanical rhythms. Nonetheless, the excitement and heart of his work is due to the people who inspire and play his compositions. Likewise, my “machine,” the iPad, can feel cold and rigid due to the nature of the device eliminating the need for physical interaction with paints, brushes, and canvas, yet the human touch is still present when I create artwork on the device. Reich’s music is about the processes of accumulating sounds, stories, and events happening in daily life and layering them in his compositions. Observing his layering approach made me more attuned to the repetitive choreography involved with painting on iPad. At the finish of the portrait, I found Steve Reich’s music complex, thrilling, relaxing, and at times anxiety-inducing. Aside from his legacy and loyal following, I really felt a connection to him through his music and the portrait reflects my admiration. Overall, I realized that even with the aid of machine-like elements theirs still is the human hand behind both of our work rather it be the people who play Steve’s compositions or the people who inspire my portraits.