Kent Jones’s perceptive, if somewhat defensive, observations upon the release of Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums seem relevant here: “Repetition compulsion is a big item in art these days. As a form, the expectation of change vs. the reality of sameness once seemed like a strictly artworld/philosophical opposition, an exotic novelty in the writings of Deleuze and the music of Glass, Reich and Reilly. Now it’s pervasive, the perfect form for a depressed age.” A few lines later, he makes an explicit link between this tradition and the looped theme and variations of trip-hop. The cumbersomely titled The Colors of the Prism, the Mechanics of Time runs with this link, as documentarian Jacqueline Caux forges an overview of 20th-century music. Caux expands the frame a bit by pinning Arnold Schoenberg’s 12-tone compositions as the warning shot, if not the opening of the floodgates. Schoenberg himself predicted his brainchild would mean German music would be dominant for a century thereafter, but Caux’s movie lightly contradicts this assertion by focusing mostly on the primacy of the American experience.
Jejune though it may be, modern music is consistently likened to the pulse of the city, the percussiveness of the MTA subway trains, the rhythm of construction sites, and in the case of something like John Cage’s “4’33,” the otherworldliness and rarity of total silence. Caux doesn’t fight this perception of modern music at all. The opening shot of The Colors of the Prism is lower Manhattan at dawn, and from there, she submits to a series of one-on-one master classes from musicians demonstrating the constructs of the genre, and the doc’s wisest decision is to simply let the camera linger on each example.
An accordionist opens up the full register of the instrument to illustrate the cacophonous potential of the era, and Caux contrasts it against the hypnotic pulsations of “The Well Tuned Piano in the Magenta Lights,” which segues into an impromptu session of droning from La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela. And so on and so forth, with the requisite pit stops at the landmarks Jones mentioned—Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and Terry Riley—until Caux ultimately winds up reaching the same endpoint conclusion the film critic reached: Electronica is the next progression, and Caux caps her otherwise rarified musical program with a rave anthem from Plastikman to drive the point home. The Colors of the Prism won’t likely alter anyone’s presuppositions about 20th-century music, unless they’re resistant to the enduring influence of the glowstick, but it’s an illustrative overview nonetheless.