Steve Reich: Maximum Minimalism


Minimalist music fascinates me. It’s so simple and repetitive, yet it vanquished the serial school that sidetracked so many composers in the first half of the 20th century.

It brought new audiences to classical music because its pulse felt good to listeners raised on rock.

Minimalism has the further trait of having inspired good music written by composers like John Adams and Michael Torke who moved past it.

Every Minimalist rejected the Minimalist label, just as every musical Impressionist denied being an Impressionist, and their objections are not unreasonable: every composer is unique. So let’s move beyond generalities and focus on the composer who will fill my two hours on the radio this weekend.

Steve Reich was born Oct. 3, 1936, in New York. His mother sang on Broadway. His parents divorced when he was one. He spent his childhood with both, taking trains between coasts. He studied piano as a child but his interest spiked when, as a teen, he got into Baroque music.

Reich took lessons on drums to play jazz but his first college degree, from Cornell, was in philosophy. He then studied music with Vincent Persichetti at Juilliard and with Darius Milhaud at Mills College in Oakland, Calif. He was exposed to serial composition but wasn’t enamored with 12-note rows. Reich was composing in the early 1960s but nothing special at first. What he did find interesting was music by Terry Riley, whose composition “In C” repeats simple ideas at different intervals so the result gradually changes.

Steve Reich was a performer in Riley’s “In C” ensemble and suggested that someone should play a pulse, one C natural eighth note over and over again, to keep everybody together. Riley agreed. This completely changed the character of the piece, which would be less interesting without it.

(The other great Minimalist composer Philip Glass was also part of that scene, and he and Reich were friends, earning money in their spare time by hiring themselves out as a moving company. Somewhere along the line Glass and Reich grew apart and became rivals, and we’re the better for it, since as competitors they tried not to copy each other and came up with different kinds of interesting music, especially in the past couple decades.)

Reich’s next big idea was to create slowly shifting sounds by playing a snippet of language simultaneously on two open-reel tape recorders, allowing them to very slowly get out of sync, as such tape recorders do. Reich has created works from tiny sound bites throughout his career, making him, as far as some of us are concerned, the granddaddy of sampling. (Kudos to Rolling Stone magazine for spotting that.)

At the same time Reich worked on pieces using pleasant musical sounds, overlapping simple ideas of uneven lengths. Reich enjoyed setting up a piece like that, then performing with his fellow musicians, experiencing whatever he had set in motion. Reich also appears to have seen value in the visual show of having musicians move around the stage between instruments, and having two musicians play one set of marimbas from opposite sides, and he once remarked that it was traditional to have a pretty girl play the pulse in each piece.

For more than 32 years Reich has intermittently composed works with the word “Counterpoint” in the title that feature one musician performing one melody line with tapes of himself playing other parts, so that a piece is all flutes or all clarinets or all electric guitars. One of the performers I’ll play this weekend is Pat Metheny, doing the third and final movement of “Electric Counterpoint.”

More recently he has composed pieces where an ensemble performs with a tape of itself. In two such pieces, “Double Sextet” and “2×5,” Reich uses a drum set, not to play the beat – almost everybody is playing the beat already – but to double other lines at certain places, thus using percussion not for rhythm but to put a finish on other timbres. Prokofiev did that in his late symphonies, btw.

The knock on Reich, and on any Minimalist work, is that you have to be in the right mood to accept both the repetition and the sometimes glacial progression of the music. In acknowledgment of that I will be sampling small portions of many Reich works. In two hours you will hear 15 CDs excerpted.

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