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.