A Rebel in Defense of Tradition

A Rebel in Defense of Tradition

As composer Steve Reich turns 70, he is winning recognition from the classical establishment for the creativity and power ever-present in his music.


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).

By opening the concert with the starkly simple Clapping Music, Reich created the impression that it was the seed for the larger works that would follow in the concert and in the years to come. In his writings Reich conveys a very logical sense of his own development. There seems to be a straight line from Clapping Music to Drumming to Music for Mallet Instruments to Six Pianos, each work building on its predecessor until Reich reaches nirvana in Music for 18 Musicians. As I came to know Reich’s oeuvre, I learned that Clapping Music actually marked the beginning of a second phase in his work, following a near-fatal trip to Ghana in 1970. In 1964 Reich had come upon phasing by accident when he was editing a tape recording of a black preacher; he misaligned two tape loops, setting in motion a process that transformed the preacher’s words into abstract sounds. The result was Reich’s opus one, It’s Gonna Rain. In 1966 he refined this technique in another piece for tape, Come Out, which premiered at a benefit concert for the retrial of the “Harlem Six,” a group of black youths charged with committing a murder during the 1964 Harlem riots. The voice of Daniel Hamm, a 19-year-old member of the Harlem Six–five of whom, including Hamm, were later acquitted–is first heard clearly saying, “I wanted to come out and show them.” The phrase “Come out and show them” is then transformed through phasing to become an evolving series of rhythms, timbres and pitches. These early works remain fascinating, but their politics is troubling. They seem to spring directly from the civil rights struggle, and yet the phasing process calls attention away from the meaning of words to their sounds. A similar critique could be made of Drumming, where Reich extracted West African rhythms from their context and imposed on them a sophisticated process of transformation unrelated to their traditional forms. Was Reich, like many modernists before him, simply going primitive? All of Reich’s music, like much American classical music, stands in a complicated relationship to popular music in general and to African-American genres of popular music in particular. Reich’s stylized African drumming fits neatly into the tradition of Ives’s hyperactive imitations of ragtime and Copland’s Debussyan reflections on the blues. Reich has described Drumming as a non-African extension of the phasing technique, but there is an African, or African-American, presence in almost all his music–most provocatively in the voice of a Pullman porter in Different Trains (1988)–hinting that more complex motives are at work.

At the time, though, Reich’s stylistic turn with Clapping Music seemed simply aesthetic. He had dropped the use of tape loops (at least for a few years) and also had called a moratorium on the more arcane conceptualism of works like Pendulum Music; instead, his works were performed by live musicians and, as he predicted in 1970, re-embraced tonal harmonies. Already clearly opposed to “uptown” music, Reich broke any lingering connections he had with the bohemian Cageian “downtown.” No more futuristic technology, no more conceptual games: Reich seemed to recast himself almost as a folk musician, or at least a musician with an ear for folk music. Going tonal for Reich did not mean going back to Bach; Six Pianos (1973) sounded more like the diatonic, folky sections of Petrouchka, while the luminously scored polyphony of the Variations for Winds, Strings and Keyboard (1979) recalled Ravel. Tonal harmonies soon produced tonal melodies, or at least Stravinskian modal ones, as in Tehillim, the first of Reich’s settings of Jewish texts. When I first heard it, Tehillim struck me as surprisingly close in style to Bernstein’s popular Chichester Psalms; both works locate their notion of Jewishness in Israel rather than the shtetl.

Just when Reich seemed to be drifting away from his radical beginnings, he changed course again. With a series of pieces called “Counterpoint,” written for soloists and prerecorded tapes, he reopened the technological explorations of his early works; and then in Different Trains, for string quartet and tape, he found a new use for the connections between recorded speech and musical patterns of It’s Gonna Rain. Once again the music was political, but here the subject was the Holocaust. Reich addressed the central aesthetic and moral issue of post-Holocaust art head-on: The art can never approach the horror of its subject. Rather than trying to create an illusion of the horror, as Schoenberg had done in A Survivor From Warsaw, Reich built Different Trains on the impossible distance between those who had perished and those whose lives, thanks to the accidents of place and time, were untouched. During World War II, Reich and his nanny traveled back and forth comfortably between the homes of his divorced parents in New York and Los Angeles. In Different Trains, composed for the Kronos Quartet, he juxtaposed recordings of a black porter on the Super Chief he rode between New York and Los Angeles during the war with the voices of Holocaust survivors who had endured train rides to the camps. The musical patterns of their fragmented reminiscences generate melodic and rhythmic ideas played by a live string quartet and prerecorded strings. The live players, appropriately, seem trapped in a musical environment beyond their control or understanding.

Different Trains reflected not only Reich’s deepening sense of his Jewish identity but also the influence of his wife, video artist Beryl Korot. Her work Dachau 1974 (viewable at www.pbs.org/auschwitz/dachau) is a four-channel “visual tapestry.” Images of a visit to the camp are played on four TV screens. As Korot describes it, “Each channel is assigned a slightly separate rhythm of image and one-second black pause for the duration of the work. These pauses interrupt the narrative, allowing identical images to be played against one another but with slightly different timings.” In other words, Korot employed a visual phasing process akin to the musical phasing of her husband’s work. There is no music in the piece, however; there is only the sound of tourists plodding through the camp. At one moment, for no given reason, there is a short burst of laughter, which rattles horrifyingly as the phasing process amplifies and multiplies its sound. Korot’s work seems the complement of Reich’s, not just by being visual but more by dealing with areas of experience far from the joyous affirmation of his music. Korot’s art challenged Reich to confront his own shadows.

Korot and Reich did not actually collaborate until The Cave (1990-93), based on taped interviews Reich made with Israelis, Palestinians and Americans at the biblical site of Abraham’s cave. Their second collaboration, Three Tales (2002), deals with the crash of the Hindenburg, atomic tests at Bikini and the cloned sheep Dolly; in many ways its spiritual critique of technical progress makes it a parallel to Koyaanisqatsi, Philip Glass’s collaboration with film director Godfrey Reggio. Critical opinion has been widely divided on the Reich/Korot collaborations. I like the way Reich has allowed the subject matter of Three Tales to broaden his sound palette and loosen up his harmonies–it is refreshing to hear him sacrificing his habitual and alluring sonic sheen. Reich has called these works his operas, and they may point the way to a musical theater where live performance and technology interact in much more interesting ways than they do in today’s opera houses. But opera, for me, is erotic in its essence, and it would be interesting to see what would happen if Korot and Reich took on a subject where the politics was also personal.

In many respects Steve Reich reminds me of Aaron Copland. His music has a similar economy of means, an almost puritanical severity and control that seem justified when the music delivers, as it so often does, a vision of the promised land. Like Copland, Reich began as an uncompromising, hard-edge rebel (Reich’s Four Organs is the equivalent of Copland’s Piano Variations) and later revealed a warmer and more varied humanity. Reich’s music, like Copland’s, is American in its idealism–and that ideal is spiritual. Both Copland and Reich are religious composers, even though Copland did not consider himself religious whereas Reich is an Orthodox Jew. Although both composers write happy music, Reich gets to happy more easily than Copland did, maybe too easily: The lonely, blues-haunted mood of Music for the Theater, or the Piano Sonata, has, so far, little parallel in Reich’s work.

Copland, though, made his peace with the concert hall, aided by two powerful conducting allies, Koussevitzky and Bernstein. Although Reich has had his champions in the classical sector, most notably Michael Tilson Thomas, he has resisted compromise with the habits of orchestral music-making. The plush sound of the Romantic orchestra holds little attraction for him; his Variations sound like Perotin, not Mahler. Reich writes for instruments with a precise understanding of their character akin to Stravinsky’s, but he is not interested in conventional virtuosity and has, to date, written no concertos. From his early works, moreover, Reich, while rejecting most of the developments in electronic music, embraced the technologies of mechanical reproduction, overdubbing and amplification–all still anathema in the classical world. A Reich performance is a complex dance of hands-on musicianship and technical sophistication, as live musicians often must synchronize with rerecorded sounds and then the entire mix of live and recorded elements is carefully kept in balance. Perhaps surprisingly, the result–when all elements work–is neither loud nor synthetic but present, even intimate. Sometimes the avant-garde is right: Most composers today work with a sound engineer, and classical audiences have come to accept and even demand the artfully controlled, electronically enhanced ambience on which Reich’s music depends.

For years Reich kept tight control over performances of his music and largely limited them to his own ensemble. This may have made good business sense, but any music benefits from varied interpretation. A good way to celebrate Steve Reich’s 70th would be to buy a fistful of CDs. Nonesuch has re-released many of its Reich-led recordings on a five-CD set, Phases; the recording of the exquisitely fashioned Proverb (1995) is worth the price of the whole, though there is something about Nonesuch’s production style that seems to take the edge off all the edgy music it admirably releases. Even more interesting are two performances a bit further from Reich’s inner circle. On the Cantaloupe label you can hear a splendid performance of Tehillim and an even more revelatory reading of Desert Music (1984) conducted by Alan Pierson with Ossia, a student group from the Eastman Conservatory and the hot new-music orchestra Alarm Will Sound. Or for something further afield from previous recordings, try the Naiveclassique CD with David Robertson conducting the Orchestre National de Lyon of Different Trains and Triple Quartet, recently re-arranged by Reich for large string orchestra. These new arrangements put two major Reich works within the reach of most symphony orchestras. Now that’s a reason to clap hands.

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