Classical Notes

Steve Reich - Reinventing Classical Music

Most of us think of classical music as something frozen in the past. treble clef graphic Indeed, the standard repertoire has been in place for over a century and even the music we consider “modern” (Stravinsky, Bartok, Prokofiev) is at least 50 years old. Yet, a recent CD catalog reveals that nearly half its listed composers are living, even though they're largely unknown and their music is mostly unheard. Although it may be thriving in private, modern classical music clearly has lost touch with its intended audience.

Let's face it – most people don't like new serious music, and with good reason – it's confusing, unfamiliar and often unpleasant. (And here, we're talking about the cutting-edge, not quasi-pop stuff that may have been recently composed but sounds like it was written ages ago.) Over the past century, the emotional satisfaction of soaring melodies, rich harmonies, exciting progressions and cathartic conclusions has been eroded by intellectual gamesmanship – first serialism trashed tonality with an attempt to equate the twelve chromatic notes,Cover of the Steve Reich box set (Nonesuch 79451) and then indeterminacy dictated content largely by chance. While serial and indeterminate music may be governed by strict logic, it sounds like random noise, dissonant and arbitrary, inaccessible to all but a handful of theorists (or perhaps psychics). Something vital got lost - human communication. And without that, music becomes aloof and frustrating and loses its point.

Throughout his career, Steve Reich has labored mightily to change that. As fellow composer John Adams has noted, Reich recognized that classical music had became too complicated and obtuse. He wiped the slate clean to reduce and simplify music to its essence, a lifeblood regulated by the natural laws of pulse and tone. Reich created a music that is genuinely novel yet respects fundamental principles. While unique, it feels comfortable and familiar. As conductor Michael Tilson-Thomas observed, while most other contemporary music is at best admired, Reich has given us back its elemental joy.

Although Reich's lifetime output amounts to barely forty works, his music has passed through several stages, yet at every turn it's always been accessible. Even non-musicians can understand and, more important, enjoy the ingredients, the processes and the results. More than any other serious composer of our time, Reich's music speaks eloquently for itself.

Enough talk – let's get to the music. Please note, though, that this is not intended to be a comprehensive survey of Reich's life, philosophy or work. Rather, I've focused on those pieces and events which strike me as pinnacles in his career.

    It's Gonna Rain (1965) - Nearly unique among great composers, Reich was nearly 30 when he produced this, his first major work. Along with the other “minimalists,” Reich proclaimed his devotion to a musical process that was perceptible throughout an entire piece, yet evolved gradually so as to invite detailed listening and concentration. Cover of the Nonesuch CD - Steve Reich's Early Work As much a philosophical statement as music in the traditional sense, the beauty of It's Gonna Rain arises from its purity and simplicity - Reich seized upon a concept and stuck to it. Here, he recorded Brother William, a fervent Pentecostal preacher, in San Francisco's Union Square and, as he later explained, sought to maintain the fascination of the speech content while intensifying its meaning and melody through rhythm. Two three-quarter second tape loops of the title phrase (“It's gonna RAIN it's gonna RAIN it's gonna RAIN it's gonna RAIN…”) from an ecstatic sermon about the Flood are played simultaneously on two machines whose slight speed variation causes them to diverge and then regain sync over the course of six minutes. After a fascinating evolution of slowly-changing cross-rhythms the inevitable convergence approaches, and the palpable tension is finally released with the completion of the phrase (“… it's gonna RAIN after a while”) as the piece ends.

A second movement edits another portion of the same material into an eight-second sequence but applies a different, open-ended structure - as two loops begin to diverge, each splits in two and then again, culminating in a throbbing drone as the words pile atop another. Heard alone, the end sounds like meaningless noise, but in context makes complete sense as the culmination of a fully lucid process that yields a complex deriviative of the original.

OK, an obvious question - this may be sound, but is it really music? Sure! It's got notes, rhythm, timbre and structure. What is music other than a logical arrangement of selected sonic material? Like the greatest masterworks, It's Gonna Rain is formally perfect - nothing could possibly be changed to “improve” it. It's strikingly original and deeply memorable as well. What's more, the materials are all natural, far more natural, in fact, than scraping horsehair over stretched catgut (ie: a violin or cello) or forcing flatulent sounds through yards of brass plumbing (ie: a trombone or tuba). And even detractors have to admire the work's purity and simplicity - Reich seized upon a concept and stuck to it.

And while we're at it, let's tackle one more issue - admittedly much of this music was created at a time when young musicians and listeners were often stoned out of their gourds. Does this stuff make any sense straight? All I can say is that it sure does to me, and I haven't even inhaled in ages. Incidentally, Reich himself rejected the notion that his early pieces were “trance” music. Rather, he wanted listeners to be wide awake to perceive previously unnoticed detail. There's no need for psychedelics - the music itself focuses our powers of concentration and openly invites discovery.

Reich stated that he wanted to merely discover a process which, once set up, would run by itself. His tape loops clearly did that, but Reich soon realized that he wanted to involve himself in the performance of his music. After another tape piece (Come Out, 1966), he applied his phasing technique to live performance. In Piano Phase (1967) a rapid twelve-note phrase is repeated constantly by two pianists, one of whom slips slowly ahead every minute or so until the rhythms (but no longer the tones themselves) coincide. Even the most skilled musician can't successfully subdivide a beat into tiny, exactly even fractions, and so a slight irregularity creeps into the process, which Reich approved as giving life to the music. Clapping Music (1972), for two sets of hands, took the process of humanizing the musical materials to its ultimate extreme, since only the body is used. However, unlike the previous phase pieces, one performer keeps a steady pulse while the other moves ahead abruptly, thus teasing the listener to discern just where the transitions lie.

    Four Organs (1970) - In the meantime, Reich had already explored and rejected two dead ends. First, he had spent 1½ years perfecting a “Phase Shifting Pulse Gate,”Cover of the Bang on a Drum CD of Four Organs an electronic device to create sounds and rhythms out of phase differences between notes played by different musicians. It was intended to enforce a communal approach, but Reich was dissatisfied with the results, which he found too stiff and precise and therefore unmusical. As a tribute to his integrity as an artist, despite having invested so much time and energy in the pulse gate, he packed it away for good. He had also abandoned Slow Motion Sound, in which a recorded sound was to have been slowed down very gradually without changing its pitch or timbre, but which the analog technology of the time didn't permit. He returned to the concept of augmentation by combining it with his growing interest in live music. In Four Organs, a quick complex chord is gradually spread out, note by note, until it stretches to 256 beats, marked by amplified maracas. Michael Tilson-Thomas recalled that there was a near-riot when he had it played at a Boston Symphony concert “on screaming rock and roll organs, so the timbre is like talons in your ears.”

    Drumming (1971) - During the 1970s Reich intensively explored three types of music that would exert a profound influence in his work. The first of these was West African drumming. Cover of the Nonesuch CD of Steve Reich's Drumming Reich had always been attracted to percussion and had played drums in bands throughout high school and college (where he studied philosophy, not music). Following his work with tape, electronics and phasing, he returned to the richness of natural acoustic instruments. In 1970 he traveled to Ghana, whose traditional music features a steady pitch and rhythm, a constant changing of timbre, and substitution of beats and rests within a repeated pattern. These hallmarks infused Drumming, in which a single quick symmetrical 12-beat phrase (eight notes and four rests) constantly evolves over the course of an hour. The most enthralling moments are the transitions between the four connected movements. In the first, 20 minutes of incessant drumming on tuned bongos with male voices magically blends into marimbas and female voices following the same pattern but with a hint of melody. The next transformation is to the delicate sounds of glockenspiels, whistling and a piccolo. After the texture trickles down to a single note, the last movement combines all the forces for a finale.

Reich extended the general approach of Drumming to two other works in 1973. Both Six Marimbas and Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ pass by in a comparatively breezy 16 minutes and are far more perky and enjoyable than their staid titles suggest. The first repeats an eight-note phrase through a delightful progression of evolving accents, while the second enlivens the texture by adding vocal effects and extended organ chords to a somewhat more relaxed 12-beat phrase.

    Music For 18 Musicians (1976) - Reich's second exploration was of the Balinese gamelan, an orchestra comprising carefully matched (and exquisitely crafted) gongs, xylophones and bells. Cover of the ECM CD of Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians Like African drumming, this is ensemble music, fully composed (although unwritten), yielding a rich blended sound of motion within stasis, constant activity within an unchanging ordered structure. Textures emerge and evolve as each instrument plays a regular subdivision of a broad, regular pulse, producing a haunting, timeless effect. In his piece, Reich didn't try to imitate the actual sound of the gamelan (and indeed scorned rock musicians using sitars for superficial exotic texture); rather, he sought to emulate its overall feel and attitude. Lasting over an hour, 18 Musicians maintains a basic 12-note meter of marimbas, xylophones, vibraphones and pianos from which longer phrases of voices, strings and clarinets surface and then recede. To humanize the process, the voice and clarinet phrases last the length of a musician's breath.

Two observations: first, although it might sound as though the musicians are riffing within an overall form, there's no improvisation here (nor, for that matter, in any of Reich's music); rather, it's all carefully planned and precisely executed. In 1974, Reich wrote that his interest was not in the performers' momentary thoughts and feelings or desire for self-expression, but rather from

being told exactly what to do within a musical ensemble, and to find that by doing it well I help make beautiful music. The pleasure I get from playing is not the pleasure of expressing myself but of subjugating myself to the music and experiencing the ecstasy that comes from being a part of it.
Obviously, it takes a special type of selfless personality to find gratification in such an approach, which cuts against the grain of the typical artist's ego, and so Reich assembled and came to rely principally upon his own ensemble to perfect and perform this and most of his other pieces.

Second, 18 Musicians is perhaps the most challenging of Reich's scores for many listeners. To me, minimalist music skirts a fine line: while it seeks to avoid the essentially dramatic vocabulary and syntax of conventional music, it still has to offer enough change to sustain interest. Here, the same basic texture persists through its entire considerable length and very little really “happens.” That's certainly not a criticism, but rather a tribute - like his earlier phasing works, 18 Musicians boasts extraordinary integrity in its rigid adherence to selected means, but ultimately perhaps it's a work that also requires an extraordinary investment of audience concentration.

    Tehillim (1982) - Having studied and absorbed the musics of West Africa and Southeast Asia, Reich recognized that there was another ancient ethnic musical tradition of greater personal importance - his own. Thus, he next explored his roots through intensive study of Hebrew and the teachings, rituals and, especially, the music of Judaism. Tracing his ancestry to the priestly tribe of Levites, Reich felt it was especially fitting for him to fulfill their historical role of singing the holy texts. Yet, while the authentic sound of chanting the Torah and Prophets has been kept alive for three millennia (just ask any Bar Mitzvah boy or girl), the tradition had been lost through time of singing the intensely lyrical psalms (which, after all, were not mere poems but the texts of songs). Thus arose Tehillim (“Psalms” or, more literally, “praise”), Reich's beautiful half-hour setting of portions of four psalms of praise in which he sought to recreate both their sound and spirit.

The text itself is inherently musical, full of mellifluous words (“Va-ly-la le-ly-la”) that beg to be sung (as, of course, they originally were). In a radical break from his previous style, and out of respect for its source, the text is no longer fragmented; Cover of the Nonesuch CD of Steve Reich's Tehilliminstead, each verse is completed before being repeated and, rather than using wordless voices as instruments, the natural inflection of the text shapes the melody, the overall structure, and the intricate rhythm which rests upon Reich's trademark constant pulse. Like his drumming and gamelan pieces, the melodies are original, yet infused with an authentic feel. The accompaniment, too, harks back to the earliest human music; the work begins with a single voice, clapping and an ancient tuned drum, to which are eventually added two more sopranos, an alto, winds weaving among the voices, and strings providing ostinato harmonic underpinning. The voices sing in a tight canon, creating a giddy effect of the medieval “hocket” technique, in which the notes of a continuous melody are spread among different singers. In another bow to tradition, there are four contrasting (yet related) movements - the first is predominantly vocal, the second contains an instrumental interlude, the third is more relaxed and haunting to contemplate the awe of mercy and justice, and the finale bursts into a sustained hallelujah of unalloyed elation. The tempo is urgent, as if to suggest a pressing need to say these wonderful things.

While a personal watershed for Reich, Tehillim is one of his most accessible works, an inspired creation that is at once uplifting, affirmative and fully conveys the sheer joy of musical expression. It's a brilliant blend of primal and modern inspiration and insight, a direct musical bridge between the source of Western civilization and our basic modern needs and expectations that, after all, haven't really changed all that much in three thousand years. It's one of the very few works of the past century (another is Poulenc's 1958 Gloria) that inclusively invites all its listeners into the world of simple and sincere awe and reverence that has lain at the very heart of religious expression since the dawn of mankind.

A lovely pendant to Tehillim came with the 1995 Proverb, a haunting meditation on a single line of Wittgenstein, “How small a thought it takes to fill a whole life.” Three sopranos sing progressively longer notes reminiscent of medieval organum, at first in a cappella canon and then increasingly embellished by two tenors, as pairs of organs add a drone continuity and vibraphones and marimbas maintain an active pulse. Illustrating the text, the thought itself expands to fill the space of the entire piece which then contracts to its plaintive beginnings. In Tehillim, the text dictated melody; here, it becomes the structure as well. Although secular, Proverb uses medieval sound and techniques to combine the basic religious feel of Tehillim with the augmentation structure of Four Organs.

    The Desert Music (1984) - With this work, Reich signaled a new direction by enriching the emotional content of his work. Cover of the Nonesuch CD of Steve Reich's Desert Music At first The Desert Music sounds familiar, combining the arch structure and opening sound of 18 Musicians with the lyric grace, bounding lightness and sung text of Tehillim. Yet, there's something new here. The very notion of the desert invokes contrast - timeless expanses and extreme conditions, ancient peoples and atomic testing. Consequently, the materials here don't sound as if they are quite as organically related, and their juxtaposition and interaction are more demanding. The ABCDCBA form is as meticulous as in any previous work, but the sections are now strongly differentiated, seeming more like a suite than the unfolding of a single idea. A full symphony orchestra affords more variegated textures, including string passages of exquisite balletic elegance. An amplified small chorus begins wordlessly and then sings texts by William Carlos Williams that read like a credo for the composer:

        Well, shall we
think or listen? Is there a sound addressed
    not wholly to the ear?
        … I am wide
awake. The mind
    is listening.
The middle movement centers on an excited hocket-like section (again harking back to Tehillim) extolling:
        It is a principle of music
to repeat the theme. Repeat
    and repeat again,
        as the pace mounts…
which the arrangement then proceeds to do - a canonic belief set in canonic music, as it were. Yet, if this sounds like Reich lite, it isn't at all; rather it's a work of great power, albeit a sly and subtle one, for the soothing musical creeds are bracketed by a stern repeated apocalyptic warning:
Say to them: “Man has survived hitherto because he was too ignorant to know how to realize his wishes. Now that he can realize them, he must either change them or perish.”
It's a harsh message, but the gravity of its dire words is cushioned in the restrained musical setting and swaddled by the gentle mystery of the surrounding text. While The Desert Music may seem the most engaging of Reich's oeuvre, its surface calm is deceptive. Yet sometimes you just have to speak softly to be heard.

    Different Trains (1988) - As wondrous and magnificent as it was, all that came before – the energizing pulse, shifting timbres, voice sampling, personal background and social concern – were preparation for and culminated in Reich's supreme masterpiece. At first, the concept of Different Trains seems like a shameless conceit as Reich compares two superficially similar types of transportation -Cover of the Nonesuch CD of Steve Reich's Different Trains the transcontinental trains that shuttled him between his divorced parents in New York and California throughout his sheltered childhood, and those that crossed Europe at the same time to carry Holocaust victims to their doom. The materials are spare - voices, train whistles, sirens and a string quartet (the remarkable Kronos, who commissioned the work) - but their effect packs a devastating emotional wallop that grows with each hearing.

Different Trains opens with the quartet depicting the enthralling chugging of trains, their whistles shouting exhilarating adventure with joyous abandon. The rhythm and pitch of repeated phrases spoken by a retired Pullman porter and Reich's aged governess generate melodic fragments which the instruments anticipate and imitate. It's a happy world, simple, wondrous and exciting. Suddenly, the liberating whistles turn to wailing sirens, the voices to those of two Holocaust survivors of Reich's age, their phrases to shards of a narrative that can only suggest an experience too appalling to fully describe: “no more school,” “into those cattle wagons,” “Polish names.” The pace slackens but then becomes more urgent, the tone darkens and turns more insistent. Then, at the final phrase, “flames going up to the sky,” all motion ceases, leaving only the relentless sirens which slowly fade to nothing. It's a shocking moment, not only in the frame of this piece but in the entire Reich oeuvre - for the first time his constant dynamic pulse, and then sound itself, stops. It's a terrifying and daring concession for a musician whose lifeblood is sound - that after all is said and done, perhaps the only way to express the inexpressible is through silence.

The War over, the final movement begins hesitantly and then reasserts the pace, whistles and voices of the first episode. But history has dampened the context. The sounds are much the same, but now seem drained of their former brightness and energy. The world itself has become more confusing. The porter says, “today, they're all gone,” but what does he mean - the trains? the Jews? our former innocence? The end at first seems arbitrary and even trite, but it's a brilliant gesture, shattering in its ambiguity - a survivor's bizarre tale of Germans urging a girl with a beautiful voice to keep singing. Their cruelly casual callous words, “more, more,” strain to be heard, drowned by the din of progress and the renewed pace of modern life. Finally, the quartet, and with it the conscience of history, drifts off into the mists of social indifference and cultural amnesia.

Different Trains is a profoundly disturbing work. As Richard Taruskin observed in the New York Times, it's nearly unique among Holocaust-inspired art - there are no heroes or villains, no flattering sense of moral superiority, no soaring tribute to the triumph of the human spirit, but only a stony invitation to reflect.

The world heard nothing more from Reich for five years, an eternity in the life of an active composer. During that time he worked in collaboration with his wife, Beryl Korot, on a video opera, The Cave (1993). Cover of the Nonesuch CD of Steve Reich and Beryl Korot's The Cave (CDs present only excerpts of the audio, from which perhaps it's unfair to assess the whole experience.) The ambitious concept explores the Biblical legend of the cave of Machpelah where Isaac (the father of Judaism) and Ishmael (the father of Islam) are reputed to be buried along with their own father Abraham, the well-spring of both ancient faiths (and their troubled modern societies). The text features authentic chanting of the Torah and Koran, and commentary by modern Israelis, Palestinians and Americans, but they cede to two startling segments in which they're overridden by the cave itself, which “speaks” in timeless mystery, through a recording of the ambient sounds and resonances that have dwelt there since the dawn of time. The piece ends by recounting the legend of Abraham first discovering the cave while searching for a calf he wants to prepare as a meal to be shared with three strangers - a metaphoric prayer for openness, compassion and peace in the Middle East.

Next came City Life (1996), which extends much of the technique developed for Different Trains to a less emotionally-charged subject, a compelling depiction of the sounds and feel of urban life. Cover of the BMG CD of Steve Reich's City Life Portions sound (gasp!) downright conventional, including the opening, a lovely massed woodwind passage reminiscent of Debussy. The first movement is built upon a bouncy but urgent rhythmic figure that playfully uses a hawker's voice (“Check it out”) and car sounds (door slams, brake squeals, horns) in lieu of standard percussion accents. Following that invitation, the tone darkens with emergency sirens in suspenseful anticipation of the astounding central movement, composed of rapid repetition of sampled fractions of syllables that careen between the stereo channels, clearly derived from human speech, but transformed into a frantic abstract sound. The effect is both familiar and surreal, a remarkable sonic metaphor for the city's conflicting forces of vitality and dehumanization, assimilation and isolation, danger constantly lurking amidst the flow of life. Suspenseful chords over a heartbeat pulse next lead to an urban nightmare of police radio dispatches. City Life concludes with a reprise of the opening impressionistic wind figures, but this time entangled with a nasty rasping drone, dryly reflecting the harsh ambiguity of the subject.

Reich and Korot's most recent work is Three Tales (2002), a video meditation on the consequences and challenges of technology.Cover of the Nonesuch CD/DVD of Steve Reich and Beryl Korot's Three Tales The first part uses the fabrication and tragic end of the Hindenberg dirigible to suggest the limitations of conventional technology. Next, preparations for atomic testing on the Bikini atoll and the displacement of its inhabitants contrasts mankind's newly-found ability to annihilate with our Old Testament charge to be the guardians of the planet and all its life. The final section explores the bioethical implications of cloning the sheep Dolly, the resonances of the first two episodes underscoring the cogent question of whether we really are ready to play God. There are a few playful elements – rapid-fire repetition of phrases and a parody of the Nibelung hammering theme as the Hindenberg is constructed to imply Wagner's fulfilment through Nazi engineering. But the overall tone is serious and the conclusion is subtly chilling – a robot, the vanguard of progress that scientists assume will eventually supplant humans, behaves like an infant. While Reich's music largely builds upon his previous output, Korot's stylized and closely coordinated video heightens its meaning. Indeed, the CD (Nonesuch 79662) comes packaged with a DVD, which conveys far more of the tone and sense of the piece than the music alone.

Reich's entire body of work is deeply affecting, stimulating, humanistic and unforgettable. All of the pieces noted above are available on various CDs from Nonesuch and ECM or collected in a wonderful mid-priced ten-disc box set (Nonesuch 79451). While professional musicians and critics may try to dissect his art, others (myself included) simply marvel how well it all works on a purely intuitive and emotive level.

Throughout his career, Reich has forged his own path to recover something basic to our human response to music. As Taruskin put it, Reich gave classical music back its youth and then its soul.

Peter Gutmann

Copyright 2000 and 2004 by Peter Gutmann

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