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Steve Reich

Manfred Eicher and Steve Reich photo from "Octet" CD

Manfred Eicher, the head of ECM Records, left, and Steve Reich, right in detail from photograph in CD booklet of "Octet," (ECM1168, 1980)

by Carter B. Horsley

Steve Reich and Philip Glass are the two most important American composers of he second half of the 20th Century.

While both gained fame as Minimalists, their work has evolved into more complexity although their percussiveness persists.

Reich's "Music for 18 Musicians" (ECM1129, 1978) remains his masterpiece, a 56 minute and 31 second immersion into mesmerizing rhythms that is slow to start but completely engrossing and immensely rich in its ultimate coloration. It stems, of course, from his earlier "Drumming" (Electra-Nonesuch 9 79170-2, 1970), which he completed shortly after a trip to Africa. "Drumming" is marvelously insistent and a relatively simple piece of precision percussion.  I have listened more than a hundred times to "Music for 18 Musicians" and each listening is a great thrill.  Its pulsating insistency and varied intricacies mature raptuously.  The listener is enveloped in cathedral-like beauty and is transported into an aerial dance of deep beauty.

"Octet" (ECM1168, 1980) consists of three works, "Music for a Large Ensemble that was completed in 1978, "Violin Phase" that was done in 1967, and "Octet" that was finished in 1979. The first and third pieces are quite similar to "Music for 18 Musicians," but the latter actually improves upon it with a smaller ensemble. Considerably shorter, it is also more engaging with its extended melodies and is very danceable.

In 1990, I happened to visit the North Cove Marina at the World Financial Center at Battery Park City along the Hudson River in Lower Manhattan on a gorgeous summer day just as an outdoor concert was about to begin.

With the occasional flapping of flags, the tinkling of cocktail glasses at the outdoor café and the soft clanking of bumpers and cables on the large yachts rolling at the piers, the concert's music started with what seemed to be the sound of foghorns and I lingered, intrigued.

They were not foghorns, but train whistles and the piece was "Different Trains" written by Steve Reich the year before and performed live by the Kronos Quartet with a taped accompaniment. I didn't learn the title until a couple of years later when I bought the CD (Electra-Nonesuch 979176-2, 1989) only to discover it was that marvelous, rolling piece of music that includes a train conductor's patter. On its own as a concert piece, this Reich work is fine and interesting, but having seen and heard it live in such a spectacular setting with jets bisecting the narrow space of the looming World Trade Center towers in the background was unforgettable. Certainly not the first techno piece in music history, it nonetheless remains perhaps the best evocation of the dynamism of the machine age, not in the manner of pile-driving brutalism, but romantic fascination with the beauty of steel and steam.

In his album notes, Reich wrote that the piece "begins a new way of composing that has its roots in my early taped speech pieces It's Gonna Rain (1965) and Come Out (1966)."  "The basic idea is that speech recording generates the musical material for musical instruments. The concept for the piece comes from my childhood. When I was one year old, my parents separated. My mother moved to Los Angeles and my father stayed in New York. Since they arranged divided custody, I traveled back and forth by train frequently between New York and Los Angeles….While these trips were exciting and romantic at the time, I now look back and think that, if I had been in Europe during this period, as a Jew I would have had to ride very different trains." Reich then recorded a retired Pullman porter, his governess, Holocaust survivors and collected train sounds from the period. He selected small speech samples that were clearly pitched and then notated them so that the strings could literally imitate the speech melodies.

In 1990, Reich changed directions dramatically with "The Four Sections (Electra-Nonesuch 9 79220-2). The sections refer to the four sections of the orchestra: strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion. Reich had been asked by conductor Michael Tilson Thomas to write a concerto for orchestra, but Reich argued that he did not "really like the idea of the soloist versus the orchestra (melody and accompaniment) and prefer the interlocking of identical instruments within the whole ensemble (counterpoint)."

"The Four Sections" is a very great surprise. It is a fine lyrical suite of great romantic beauty that bears hardly any traces of Reich's signature. It is almost as if Reich wrote it just to prove he could and put any dissidents in their place. If so, he has, and one can only hopes he finds more challenges.

More recently, Reich's "City Life (Nonesuch 79420-2, 1996) extends the aesthetic of "Different Trains" with a much more vigorous, even harrowing intensity achieved through the use of sampling synthesizers (the Casio FZ10). From a street hawker, "Check it out!," to sirens to the actual field communications of the New York City Fire Department on the day the World Trade Center was bombed, this staccato piece is brilliant, the best use yet of sampling technology.

As Reich observes in his album notes, "From the use of taxi horns in Gershwin's An American in Paris through Varese's sirens, Antheil's airplane propeller, Cage's radio and rock and roll's use of all of the above and more starting at least in the 1970's and more recently in rap music, the desire to include everyday sounds in music has been growing. The sampling keyboard now makes this a practical reality….In contrast, to my earlier Different Trains…and The Cave…, the pre-recorded sounds here are played live in performance on two sampling keyboards. There is no tape used in performance. This brings back the usual small flexibility of tempo that is a hallmark of live performance."

Reich's rhythmic sense is very powerful and while he is not the first to use samplers, he shows what a difference a great artist can make and the piece reverberates long after it is over. Its sirens are much more effective than Tchaikovsky's cannon, although on first listening they are apt to be not a little terrorizing.

Who is better, Reich or Glass?

Glass, of course, has been more prolific and more commercially successful, but these are not concerns of substance. To these ears, Reich is more exciting and interesting, while Glass's glib motifs, however glorious, are too incessant throughout the bulk of his oeuvre.  Reich is more complex.  Glass is more facile and accessible.  Fortunately, one does not have to make a decision yet as they are both hard at work.  


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