Saturday, April 14, 2012

Phased Tension Hypnotique: Rajon Rondo and Steve Reich

Like the vast majority of NBA players, Rajon Rondo is on record as a Hip Hop and R'n'B aficionado. This is the soundtrack of basketball, the underpinning of identity and atmosphere that serves as a sort of secondary unifier, outside of the game itself, for those who ball. Even when the league attempts to dampen or subjugate the more overtly "thug" (and that term should be taken with a whole silo full of salt) elements of its persona, there's no divorcing basketball from its musical/cultural conjoined twin.* Rondo's top five list in the link above is as good an example as any of inextricable symbiosis. Undoubtedly, if NBA players could select entrance music the way batters and relief pitchers do, he would pick the hottest, most slammin' Jay-Z or Drake track possible, and feel like a total badass as he strutted onto the court while it thumped over The Garden's PA system.

But I submit to you that Rajon Rondo's personal backing tracks, if one were to compose a score to accompany his game and on-court demeanor, would not consist of beats and MCs. In fact, the perfect auditory representations of Rondo-as-unique-basketball-entity were first performed and recorded several years before he was even born. The man who wrote the music of Rondo's essence? The grand poobah big daddy of the 20th-century Minimalist movement, pioneer of phase music and looping, and America's finest living composer, Steve Reich.

If you're unfamiliar with Reich's work, I urge you to take the time to listen to this and this. (I know the second selection cuts off early, but you get the idea. Ignore the videos, by the way, they're irrelevant.)

I know, I know. This music is about as far removed from Hip Hop swagger and the dynamism of Rondo's play as is possible, but just bear with me for a moment here. To my way of thinking, two things are the hallmarks of Reich's particular compositional voice: the incredible variety and constant permutations he derives from the barest of musical elements, and a brutally unrelenting sense of permanent tension. Those two elements also happen to be the defining characteristics of Rajon Rondo's game.

No one in the NBA does more with less than Rondo. For a perimeter player to lack any semblance of a jumper (he's averaging 30% FG on shots more than 3 feet from the rim this season) is limiting. For that same player to also struggle mightily at the stripe (59% this season), especially when he's as gifted at getting to the rack as Rondo and should be using that ability to draw contact, would paint the picture of an ineffectual offensive component. Yet the man is a threat to notch a triple-double every time he sets foot on the court. Defensively, he's an unpredictable but potentially lethal quantity. And he does all this with only a trio elements at his disposal: an intuitive, unique interpretation of the court, world-class athleticism, and the sort of length (not just his arms but the freakishly huge hands** attached to them) that makes bloggers and commentators overuse the word "wingspan" 36 times a sentence.

In "Violin Phase" (the first piece linked above), Steve Reich takes a single, disconcertingly serpentine two-bar loop and, instead of traditional compositional development, he evolves the piece based upon the temporal relationship of that loop to an accelerated version of itself. Variations emerge as the elements of the loop come in and out of phase with each other, and each acceleration reveals a newly juxtaposed counterpoint. It's creating something complex and whole out of a handful of rudimentary tools: a single musical phrase, its repetition, and what transpires when that repetition is shifted in time. Rondo achieves an equally complicated and enthralling outcome via the creative application of a similarly limited range of assets. Devoid of some important, more conventional skills (the aforementioned shooting difficulties, a certain eccentricity of style that occasionally hampers his play), he has parlayed this combination, flawed though it may be in some respects, into a customized weapon on both ends of the floor. His game, like that violin riff, is lacking in diversified aspects yet can still produce myriad variations of beauty when properly utilized, and nobody utilizes his gifts quite like Rondo.

"Six Pianos", the other Reich composition linked above, exhibits many of the characteristics just discussed. It uses iota-sized fragments of musical thought; short patterns in a propulsive, rhythmic drive. Ideas emerge and recede, evolve and devolve, shifting around and into each other. We experience this as a series of subtle changes. Moments flash lucid only to be deconstructed, the whole work slowly migrating through a few tonal centers, but the piece never once leaves the pitch classes of the D major scale. And that last sentence is the key to the other regard in which Steve Reich is Rajon Rondo's musical patron saint. The piece starts furious and hypnotic, and it stays that way. The tonality shifts according to the bass emphasis and voicings, but we never leave that D Ionian scale. Harmonic motion of any kind is nonexistent. We start with a tension that is never increased, lessened, or resolved. It is altered yet undiluted throughout the progress of the composition, and persists until the sudden, and still unresolved ending. Watch Rajon Rondo's face, attitude, and demeanor sometime over the course of a whole game: he is the physical embodiment of this trait of Reich's music.

From opening tip to final buzzer, Rondo is a coiled spring that stays coiled. 30-point blowout or nail-biter affair, he is permanently tensile. No play great or terrible, no momentum shift or foul or occurrence of any kind alters this quality. He has the perpetual look of sprinter in the starting blocks, the tiger just before the pounce and kill. The invisible wire within him is always taut, always one instant from either snapping or going slack, yet it never does either. Every second of game clock, Rondo conducts himself with the same hypnotic intensity, actual circumstances be damned. The effect of listening to "Six Pianos" and that of watching Rajon Rondo play a basketball game is differentiated only by the sensory medium through which we process it. The perpetual, unresolved tension is identical in either case.

Hip Hop is the medium and voice of the NBA, and the preferred choice of Rajon Rondo. Nothing could make more intuitive sense. But in terms of compositional ethos and auditory representation, Steve Reich pretty much hit the unintentional nail on the head in mirroring Rondo's identity on the court. Even if they have nothing else in common, both understand the value of tension and creative use of limited thematic material. This makes them wonderfully unique in their respective fields, and wonderful uniqueness is a damned fine thing to witness.

* The most obvious example: when David Stern implemented the league dress code in an effort to curtail Hip Hop's aesthetic impact on the presentation of his product. Instead of merely accepting it, fashion-oriented players like Dwyane Wade immediately seized upon the moment, subverting the NBA's new sartorial rules and using them as a platform to redefine "swag."

** One of my all time favorite Rondo moments involved him standing perfectly motionless on the right of the floor, roughly parallel with the top of the key. Paul Pierce tried an iso possession that got shut down by the arrival of a help defender, and he fired a bullet of an overhead cross-court pass back to Rondo. The pass sailed on him, elevating well above Rondo's head and traveling at or close to the highest velocity ever achieved by a basketball. Without moving any other muscle, Rondo extended his right arm straight up and, with one incredibly huge hand simply snatched the ball out of the air and held it raised above his head. I repeat: THE BALL WAS GOING A ZILLION MILES AN HOUR WAY OVER HIS HEAD AND THE DUDE ABSOLUTELY SPIDERMAN'ED THAT SHIT ONE-HANDED! It was ridiculous. Most NBA players can palm a basketball, but Rondo's got to be the only one who could do THAT without batting an eyelash. Sheesh.

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