In music, the structure of loops is fascinating for its meditative and blissful potential. In 1963, just a year prior to the release of one of his most famous compositions (In C), Terry Riley used tape loops to create music for the avant-garde play The Gift, which was being staged in Paris. Riley used recordings of the Chet Baker Quartet, about which Baker reportedly exclaimed, “Far out, man.” Pauline Oliveros created loops using swept oscillators with varying tones, clips of classical music and tape echo – an early example of the intoxicating, gratifying effects which trance and ambient music producers, DJs and remixers later would pipe into dance clubs around the world. For No Pussyfooting, the 1973 debut album by Brian Eno and Robert Fripp, the musicians created a bounty of ethereal magic by leveraging the delays of feedback and the distance between a pair of tape decks positioned just a bit between each other.
Matt Starling, a Salt Lake City musician who also is one of the founders of the internationally acclaimed Salt Lake Electric Ensemble, is releasing a new album Music for Nina (Heart Dance Records), an absolutely glorious manifestation of the pure musicality embedded in the structure of loops. Starling’s exquisite musicianship once again is on display here in what certainly is his most intimate project to date.
The creative genesis comes from his deep, total love of his wife, Nina and their daughter, Lou. It also channels the search for music that he has used for meditation as well as dealing with insomnia. As he explains in his liner notes, “I remember I started working late at night, around the time I would normally go to sleep. Instead of sleeping I created music sleepily for about 18 straight hours before exhaustion set in. At that point Music for Nina was mostly formed; afterward I focused mainly on refinements and mixing.”
Starling created dozens of loops, of varying length but always landing on some number of complete bars in 12/8 time, which he sorted into 23 different groups. Starling’s instincts guided him in weaving the elements of melody, variation, minimalistic drones, compact motifs and harmonics without ever sounding dense or intense to a point that it would distract or interrupt the blissful mindset, set forth as its aim. The sequences play out in a unique format each time, as when a loop in a particular group reaches it ending point, the computer then selects one of a pair of possible actions based on a probability that Starling has assigned.
As Starling mentions in an email to The Utah Review, “While this music does have a tightly composed, controlled beginning, there’s really no ending to this music outside of the listener’s interactive stop button. I composed and listened to this composition with long durations of time in mind.” Indeed, in addition to the 78-minute album, Starling also will be releasing three versions to streaming music providers. These include a six-minute single (radio edit) edition, an-hour-long edition that is presented as the “meditation” edition of the master album (which Starling says, “the time I spent creating this music was some of the most deeply meditative moments I’ve experienced”), and an eight-hour-long edition that is being marketed as music for sleep. Starling adds, “I’ve suffered from insomnia to one degree or another for the last 15 years. I’ve found that playing music in the bedroom that has certain characteristics (calm, gentle, meditative, etc.) has been effective in helping me fall asleep. I hope this music might be effective for others too.”
On a personal note, I’ve tried all available versions. The meditative edition succeeds for how effortlessly it redirects the concentration so that the breathing and heartbeat rhythms adjust to a clarifying, calming state of mind. Its elucidating effect was notable while compiling research notes for a client project, reading a book that is part of an upcoming literary feature for The Utah Review, and, yes, solving The New York Times crossword in personal record time for a Thursday. Likewise, the sleep edition worked its charm. Perhaps the best metaphor for the sleep version is how the soundscape gradually envelops the body before swaddling it with the utmost gentle touch as one drifts off to that deep sleep stage while the sonic engine continues to purr unobtrusively in its subtle undulations of loops.
There is a fairly substantial body of work about the effects of such music on the health of one’s sleep and calming effects for the mind. A Taiwan study, with results published in 2005 in the peer-reviewed Journal of Advanced Nursing, showed that adults between the ages of 60 and 83 who listened to 45 minutes of music before retiring for the night reported better quality of sleep. A 2011 research article in the Frontiers in Psychology journal concludes that “listening to music during surgery under regional anesthesia has effects on cortisol levels (reflecting stress-reducing effects) and reduces sedative requirements to reach light sedation.” A meta-analysis of music intervention studies for cancer patients, published in a 2012 peer-reviewed article for the Supportive Care in Cancer journal, indicated that music had positive effects on coping anxiety, reduced effects of anxiety and depression and displayed good effects for managing pain. A research overview from the National Sleep Foundation indicates that “most studies have selected music that is around 60 to 80 beats per minute. Because normal resting heart rates range from 60 to 100 beats per minute, it’s often hypothesized that the body may sync up with slower music.” This latest Starling release might suggest the potential for appropriate anecdotal evidence for this.
Versatile for psychological, physiological, recreational or emotional effects and purposes, Music for Nina is a masterfully crafted, supremely gentle offering.
Starling has recorded five albums with the Salt Lake Electric Ensemble, featuring original compositions and established works. Earlier this year, the ensemble released Return: For the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company. Starling also has his own releases, including Erik Satie: Selected Works for Piano (2016) and Dorian Reeds (for Brass) (2015).