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
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.
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
"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
contrast, to my earlier Different Trains
, 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.