Steve Reich

An introduction to his work

Steve Reich

By Javier Blánquez

Of all the composers we identify with the American minimal school of the second half of the 20th Century, Steve Reich (b. New York, 1936) is the one who best represents the excellence of a movement that is crucial to understanding the evolution of the music that came afterwards – from cult and academic to popular. There are composers who have reached a higher level of fame –Philip Glass, with whom Reich worked in the early stages of his career, when they tried to find their place on the avant-garde and bohemian scene of the Lower East Side– and others who have a more solid cult status –like Tony Conrad, LaMonte Young, and Terry Riley. Reich is, however, the one who has remained at a privileged point in between: much respected in cult circles, winner of the last Pulitzer music prize for “Double Sextet” and revered by both rock –from Sonic Youth to David Byrne– and electronica artists.

Reich’s music loyally represents the minimalist aesthetic –notation grouped in clusters of few elements, repeated and varied insistently for minutes, giving that already familiar feeling of few resources and hypnotic effect– without forgetting about exotic embellishments (Reich has many times used elements from south-east Asian music, particularly gamelan music from Bali), or an urban vocation and swing which, in a very peculiar way, put him in line with titans of American music of the first phase of the past century, like Gerswhin.

Steve Reich is one of the bigger artists of the upcoming Sónarfestival. Along with Grup Instrumental bcn216 and Synergy Vocals, he will take part in the opening concert, to be celebrated at the Barcelona Auditori, which will feature a program consisting of his most famous piece, “Music For 18 Musicians” and the work that has recently won the Pulitzer Prize, “Double Sextet”. His discography is lengthy –50 works and counting, with diverse recordings, his own or by others, in a repertoire of which a big part is still unreleased, and still, he keeps working every day. Without wanting to be exhaustive but rather illustrative, here’s a small guide for those who are curious to start digging with excitement into Steve Reich’s body of work.

“Drumming” (1971)

The first recording of “Drumming”, divided into four parts and with a duration of almost two hours, corresponds to the era when Reich was already starting to find a place as a composer on the downtown New York scene that was extremely receptive towards the avant-garde but still cruel to young composers. He already had a couple of records out, such as “Live / Electric Music” (1968) and “Four Organs / Phase Patterns” (1970), where some of his trademark sounds were already present: the B-side of his first album, for example, was occupied completely with “It’s Gonna Rain”, a wonderful piece of minimalism composed with nothing more than the voice of a preacher, recorded during a sermon and repeated and reorganised during 18 exciting minutes of tape music, beaten, later on, by an improved version of “Come Out”. On “Drumming”, the rhythmic vocation of Reich is woken up: three marimbas (his favourite instrument), eight electrified drums, three glockenspiels and voices that weave a never-ending chain with phases of maximum roughness and minutes of joy. “It’s Gonna Rain”


“Six Pianos / Music For Mallet Instruments, Voices And Organ” (1974)

Two early works, recorded over many occasions –the first, in the catalogue of Deutsche Grammophon–, but fundamental in the evolution of Reich towards maturity: far from the occasional coarseness of “Drumming”, in these two scores the rhythm is more important than the harmony, but with the piano and the xylophone as the main instruments, used almost as percussion kits over which the usual, almost angelic soprano voice sounds we find in most of his work, and underneath, the fine lines of brass instruments (oboes, mainly) that help the piece unfold smoothly. “Six Pianos”

“Music For 18 Musicians” (1978) There are two different versions (recorded by Reich himself) of what is Reich’s true masterpiece: the original, released on vinyl by ECM, lasts a little under one hour; the second, re-recorded in 1998, occupies a full CD in a longer version and is even more captivating than the first. Minimalism of the highest quality, “Music For 18 Musicians” features all of the idioms used by Reich on loose pieces in one sole majestic unit on which an economic idea –repeated cycles of very few notes– is organised and modified in infinite variations thanks to the exchange of roles and turns of the 18 musicians of the ensemble. The first minutes and the last are very different from each other, but the constant transitions give the impression that nothing has happened, that you have been immersed in one harmonic set. The influence of “Music For 18 Musicians” on techno has been crucial –it’s the summed-up and purged idea of the “loop”– but even more important is Reich’s achievement of an infinite work that could always be touched but would never lose anything of its beauty. “Music For 18 Musicians. Pulse”

“Sextet / Six Marimbas” (1987) In the years after “Music For 18 Musicians”, Steve Reich consolidated his prestige, and the years of financial trouble were over. A rich and productive phase starts and he becomes a part of the Nonesuch team as a landmark who would cross over, without it being something forced, to a more popular field. From his work in that relaxed period, “Sextet” and “Six Marimbas” become two landmark works. Like his colleague Philip Glass –and, in general, all of the minimalists, including most of the British ones– Reich’s sound started to use predictable resources –“Sextet” is, once again, the commitment to a small group of musicians; “Six Marimbas” is his incessant search for happiness through percussion, following John Cage’s “percussion music is revolution”–, but to become deeper, too. “Sextet”

“Different Trains / Electric Counterpoint” (1989) “Different Trains” is played by Kronos Quartet, at the time the most radical of American chamber music groups, with whom all the minimalist composers would end up working sooner or later. Divided over three movements – “America. Before The War”, “Europe. During The War” and “After The War”–, it sounds like the music Lars Von Trier should have used for “Europa”, following the mesmerising track of a train going somewhere dark, because of its simultaneous dark strings and vocal loops that would come back later on, maximised, on “City Life”. “Electric Counterpoint” is even more minimalist, as the base is a guitar –of jazzman Pat Metheny, repeated for almost 15 minutes and at different speeds– and requires a prodigious technique. The main melody of the Metheny version was the one sampled by The Orb for the intro of their ambient-house hit “Little Fluffy Clouds”. “Electric Counterpoint II & III: Slow & Fast”

“The Cave” (1995) At the time, “The Cave” appeared as (one of) the most radical and peculiar works in Reich’s repertoire. The reason is simple: it’s an opera based on the projections designed by video artist Beryl Korot. In the brief history of American minimalism, the idea of an opera wasn’t far-fetched –John Adams and Philip Glass had written and reproduced theirs successfully ( “Nixon In China”, “Einstein On The Beach”, etc.)–, but in the case of Reich, it came in an advanced stage of his career, without warning and without continuation. Therefore, it’s a rare and peculiar piece: next to the big masterpieces it languishes and as an opera it’s abrupt and focussed on a dark theme, the Hebrew patriarch figure Abraham and the alliance of Yahveh with the people of Israel, based on the text of “Genesis”. It’s difficult to enjoy “The Cave” on record –it was released as a double CD– because of the lack of visual support, essential for the whole of the work. It should be seen in a theatre; unfortunately it’s hardly ever played. “The Cave”

“City Life” (1996) The release of “City Life” –an album which is actually a collection of three pieces: “Proverb” (a choral piece with the Theatre Of Voices), “Nagoya Marimbas” (a four minute summary of all of his music for percussion) and the “City Life”– meant a reaffirmation of his prestige after the lukewarm response to “The Cave” and several years without writing a significant piece. “City Life” is a fresco of the activity in a big city where several street sounds –voices, car horns– are merged with a sonic tissue of piano, xylophones and brass instruments, very dynamic rhythmically and rich in textures. It may be a coincidence, but “City Life” was released around the same time the illbient scene exploded in New York, which integrated urban sounds in pieces of dub and electronic ambient. Possibly, it was the spirit of the time of New York in its proud splendour, five years before 9/11. “City Life Part 1: Check It Out”

“Reich Remixed” (1999) After many years of suspicion, this finally was the confirmation: the electronic aristocracy form the late nineties paid tribute to the man in the form of remixes. As could be expected, the record has ups and downs, some really good remixes and some not so good. It’s not always a good idea to put cult composers on the same stage as DJs, no matter how many similarities or contact points there are, but in any case Nonesuch’s idea turned out on the good side: they were right in choosing more people from trip-hop, ambient, illbient and isolationism than from straight up techno. Among the participants were some big names, like Coldcut, Andrea Parker, DJ Spooky, Nobokazu Takemura and Howie B. Andrea Parker, “The Four Sections”

“Double Sextet / 2x5” (2010) Regarding “Double Sextet”, we repeat what we said about it in Cocooning in September 2010: the work was worthy of Pulitzer Prize 2010 and showed Reich “in top shape within an established style: rhythmic precision, the use of marimbas and phasing techniques that he had already done perfectly on ‘Music For 18 Musicians’ and ‘City Life’, are the chromatic base of a piece that isn’t going to surprise but is going to be liked, because it’s like pocket Reich and for all audiences.” On the album released by Nonesuch, moreover, there was a second new composition, “2x5”, “maybe the definitive proof that, nowadays, changes don’t become Reich. “2x5” wants to be more rock –there are two electric guitars, played by the ensemble Bang On A Can– although it’s more of the same, only with a strange ending, like a minor revision of ‘Electric Counterpoint’. “Double Sextet I. Fast”

Steve Reich will be playing at Sónar Barcelona (opening concert) on 16th June 6 at 8:00 pm, at the Auditori. Tickets on sale here . PlayGround is a media partner of Sónar Steve Reich, living legend of contemporary music and supreme minimalist, is one of the big names at Sónar 2011. Before he takes the stage, we take a closer look at his body of work

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