A Rebel in Defense of Tradition
Not since Aaron Copland turned 75 has the birthday of an American composer been greeted with the jubilation now surrounding Steve Reich as he enters his eighth decade. The classical establishment, which still hasn't figured out how to award Reich a Pulitzer Prize, has finally embraced a composer, and a movement, that it had relegated to the margins. Everyone else, it seems, has understood Reich's importance at least since 1974, when Deutsche Grammophon released a three-LP album of his music. The absurd delay in official recognition may be the price Reich has paid for his radical rejection of the habits of both the concert hall and of what used to pass for "new music." His radicalism, however, has turned out to be profoundly conservative. It returned American art music from the wastelands of academic atonality and neo-Romantic nostalgia to its most fruitful mission, the fusion of utopian ideals and the sounds of everyday life that we hear in Charles Ives's Three Places in New England, George Gershwin's Concerto in F, Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring and Duke Ellington's Black, Brown and Beige. Reich's Music for 18 Musicians (1974-76), an hour of elegant sonic splendor drawn from chords, riffs and colors you might hear in a shopping mall, belongs in that august company--and it is certainly not the only gem in Reich's body of work, though it remains my favorite.
As Reich turns 70, minimalist music is almost a half-century old. The founding fathers, La Monte Young and Terry Riley, met in Berkeley in 1960. They were both studying composition at Berkeley and admired the music of Bartók and Webern, but Young spent the summer of 1957 meditating on sounds and vibrations. This exercise yielded Young's Trio for Strings, an hour of music made of just a few sustained tones, now usually considered the first minimalist piece. But it was the performance of Riley's In C in 1964 that put minimalism on the map. Reich, who had studied at Juilliard with Vincent Persichetti and then at Mills College with Luciano Berio, performed in the premiere of In C. In 1966 Reich moved back to New York, where he got to know Philip Glass. At one point they had a moving company together; Glass also worked as a plumber while Reich drove a cab. Someday there may be a Mount Rushmore for the four first minimalists, but they still differ a bit on the details of who came up with what ideas and when, and they soon went very separate ways. Young and Riley had been jazz musicians; they were influenced by the conceptual ideas of John Cage and, even more, by the Indian music taught to them by Pandit Pran Nath. The European past held less interest for them than the Indian tradition, which they pursue to this day. By contrast, both Reich and Glass, though deeply involved with non-Western musical cultures, had studied at Juilliard, and Glass had worked with Nadia Boulanger--the epicenter of European musical pedagogy. While Young and Riley have remained cult figures far from the classical mainstream, Reich and Glass had larger ambitions quite early. With grandly scaled works like Glass's Music in Twelve Parts (1971-74), and Reich's Four Organs (1970), they set forth the claim that they, not the serialists, were the true successors to the composers of the European tradition, from Leonin and Perotin through Monteverdi, Bach and Stravinsky. The classical establishment assumed--at great cost to its cultural authority--that they were joking.
Perhaps most threatening to the classical world at the time was the easy coexistence of minimalism and rock music. The tension between "high" and "low" in the classical music world is at least as old as the 1924 premiere of Rhapsody in Blue, a work that everyone embraced except Gershwin's better-educated fellow composers, who were not amused. When Henry Pleasants's The Agony of Modern Music appeared in 1955, claiming that jazz was the true heir to the Western tradition and that modernism was a perverse dead end, Copland himself led the chorus of high-minded disapproval. By the '60s, though, high-mindedness seemed merely hidebound. In the decade of the Beatles, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Brian Wilson, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Smokey Robinson and Frank Zappa, classical music offered little to justify its exalted cultural position other than its glorious past. And yet finding a fresh connection between classical and pop styles was hardly obvious; Leonard Bernstein's Mass struck many listeners then as a grotesque example of what happens when a classical composer, even one with a lot of pop credentials, heads south: a stylistic mishmash retaining the pretentiousness of the high and the banality of the low.
Reich's music was first heard in New York in the late '60s, mainly at art galleries and museums where the minimalism and conceptualism of Donald Judd and Sol LeWitt formed an appropriate backdrop. At that time I was studying in England and discovering the very different vanguard idiom of Karlheinz Stockhausen. My closest brush with minimalism had been a performance I gave with three Cambridge friends of Riley's Keyboard Studies, a more intimate version of In C. I first encountered Reich's music in 1974, and it rearranged my musical universe. Reich's ensemble performed at Columbia, not at McMillan Theater (now reborn as the very hip Miller Theater), where serialism had reigned since the early 1960s, but in the even drearier expanse of Wollman Auditorium, part of a student union, now demolished, thrown up in 1960 without, it would seem, the services of an architect.
I was then a graduate student in English literature at Columbia, but on Wednesday evenings I played in a West African music group led by musicologist Nicholas England and Ghanaian master drummer Alfred Ladzekpo. I had read that Reich had also studied the Ewe music that we played with Ladzekpo, so I wanted to check him out. When I showed up for the concert Wollman was scantily occupied, and there was little in the way of a buzz. Reich's musicians were easily identified by their geek-squad uniforms: white shirts, black trousers. To begin Reich and, I believe, percussionist Russell Hartenberger performed Clapping Music, which has since become the ensemble's theme song. Clapping Music is absurdly simple, at least to describe: A single rhythm, related to the twelve-beat West African pattern you hear at the opening of All Things Considered, is repeated over and over by two players. One clapper, however, rotates the pattern one beat at a time until, five minutes or so later, the two players converge.
This rotational process, which Reich called "phasing," is at once the form and content of a piece that might have seemed like a mathematical exercise--except that it put a smile on your face the way a Haydn minuet can. The rhythm, whatever its ethnic and arithmetic roots, had a familiar swing--it's the kind of rhythm girls jump rope to, boys sass with and cheerleaders use to work up the crowd. But as the two clappers went out of phase, the unexpected happened. Reich and Hartenberger were clapping into a microphone. The mike didn't just boost the volume; it clarified the sound of four hands clapping so that you heard pitches, melodies, harmonies, overtones--it put the ping in clapping. The everyday rhythm, the everyday sound, the familiar action of ritualized approval--all had been put through a musical prism, refracted and magnified. The ordinary became magic.
And that was just the start. The lengthy, casually paced concert also included Reich's Drumming (1970-71) and his bliss-inducing Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ (1973), which evoked the sound of a Balinese gamelan and also, somehow, memories of the Macy's toy department at Christmas. Although I was engrossed in the music, I slowly became aware of a sociological event in the hall. In the course of the performances, some audience members left--hardly unusual at performances of new music--but they soon returned with friends. Halfway through Drumming the hall was filled to capacity. I had never before seen contemporary music attract a crowd--or even imagined the possibility. The grim "new" music that was played at McMillan, one block north, seemed intended only for a composer's teachers and, perhaps, immediate family. At its most interesting, as in works by Stefan Wolpe, that tense, angular, disjointed "uptown" music challenged your tolerance for angst, but most of the music you heard there was by wannabe Weberns and Wolpes smugly turning out forgettable imitations of an expressionist style that had peaked a half-century earlier. My friends called its performers the Group for Contemptible (or Contemptuous) Music. As soon as I heard Steve Reich's works I knew that "contemptuous music" was dead and that I could set my own music on a brighter path--an experience shared by many composers of my generation (like John Adams) and those who have followed (such as Michael Torke and the entire Bang on a Can collective).