Proverb by Steve Reich (1995)
Maggie Nelson’s Bluets is in part inspired by the writing of Ludwig Wittgenstein, both his Remarks on Colour and his style has been of great influence to Nelson. As Nelson the composer Steve Reich is also inspired by Wittgenstein. A single line: “How small a thought it takes to fill a whole life!” is the lyrical inspiration for his wonderful piece Proverb (1995).
“How small a thought it takes to fill a whole life!” supply the entire text of Steve Reich’s Proverb, and in doing so reaffirm their own truthfulness: in Proverb, a single kernel of an idea serves as the basis for an entire musical composition. It starts with a single voice, a soprano who is gradually joined by two other sopranos, two tenors, and an instrumental ensemble consisting of two electric organs and two vibraphones. This eclectic group continues to express the central theme in word and musical gesture, repeating the same text while inverting the original downward line into a melodic ascent or stretching it into a larger structural element by drastically augmenting the note values. Gradually the listener discovers the truth of the proverb; “How small a thought it takes to fill a whole life!” (or – how small a line it takes to fill a whole composition).
Isn’t it just fantastic?! And the link to Nelson? In appropriating from the same source, the two artists have made two very different, but equally beautiful works of art.
The short text, “How small a thought it takes to fill a whole life!” comes from a collection of Wittgenstein’s writing entitled Culture and Value. Much of Wittgenstein’s work is ‘proverbial’ in tone and in its brevity. This particular text was written in 1946. In the same paragraph from which it was taken Wittgenstein continues, “If you want to go down deep you do not need to travel far”.
Steve Reich: Proverb; Nagoya Marimbas; City Life
I think I summed up my attitude to philosophy when I said: Philosophy ought really to be written only as poetic composition. It must, as it seems to me, be possible to gather from this how far my thinking belongs to the present, future or past. For I was thereby revealing myself as someone who cannot do what he would like to be able to do.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value