It was with some misgivings that I undertook to review this collection of the music of Steve Reich, which includes Music for 18 Musicians (1976), Violin Phase (1967), Music for a Large Ensemble (1978), Octet (1979), and Tehillim (1981). It’s not that I don’t like the music, or don’t have any sympathy for it: I first encountered Reich’s music in the late 1970s-early 1980s at concerts sponsored by Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, which also introduced me to the music of Philip Glass. It’s rather that the works of both composers at that time were what I call “hard-core serial minimalism,” a sort of take-no-hostages approach that was strict, tight, and much easier to watch in performance than listen to on recordings: at least in a concert you could watch the musicians.
Strangely enough, or perhaps not, at this point I’m finding it a lot easier to listen to these early works by Reich than I had expected. I chalk it up to several years of listening to gamelan. Lest you think this is somewhat random, gamelan, particularly the gamelan of Bali, is credited as a major influence on the serial minimalists, and, as Paul Griffiths points out in his essay accompanying this set, is one of the important influences on Reich’s music, along with West African drumming and rock.
One aspect of these works that relates most strongly to gamelan is structure: Western music has a linear structure; these works, and those of the serial minimalists in general, partake of the circular structure of gamelan: rather than beginning with a statement of a theme, followed by variations, and ending with a synthesis, Music for 18 Musicians, for example, almost seems to begin in media res: we have a rhythmic pattern that repeats, seemingly endlessly, but as it continues we become aware that there are subtle changes: new voices enter, existing voices retire, there are incremental changes in tone and texture , until what we have is a rich tapestry of sound, abstract, highly colored, and ultimately mesmerizing. Griffiths notes that “[b]esides pulse, harmony and length, what defines the music is ceremony.” That, once again, echoes an aspect of non-Western music that is little remarked but, I think, important: very few non-Western traditions have what we call “concerts”: the music is, as often as not, part of a larger event, whether it be ritual, dramatic performance, village festival, what have you: that added dimension comes through here.
Music for a Large Ensemble emphasizes the fragmentary nature of Reich’s rhythms: they seem to start, then break off, then start again, building and then diminishing in volume as a brass choir creates waves of sound that advance and recede. (If this sounds as though I’m calling on the image of a seashore, well, yes – it fits.) And yet, the music changes character, slowly, subtly, before returning to its beginnings.
Violin Phase, the earliest work in this collection by nearly ten years, is striking for illustrating the consistency of Reich’s style during this whole period. Although not has heavily textured a the preceding pieces – it is actually scored for one violin on four tape loops, run slightly out of synch and beginning at different times – the structures and interplay among the voices are there, although perhaps not as tightly controlled. (I am reminded of Morton Feldman’s Why Patterns?, which partakes of a similar conceptual basis.) Perhaps because of its spareness, this seems to be the most minimal of minimalist works on this disc.
Octet, although the title may lead one to believe that it will be as spare as Violin Phase, is anything but: the density apparent in the works from the 1970s is here, along with a quality that I generally describe as “urban angst”: there’s a busy quality to the piece that, perhaps because of the relatively small forces employed, becomes very important.
Griffiths, in his essay, describes Tehillim as Reich’s “symphony of psalms.” It’s of a markedly different character than the other works in this collection, seemingly looser (not really, but the feeling is there) and less richly textured: scored for four women’s voices with woodwinds, strings, electric organs and percussion, there is very much a feeling of vocal lines in front of the instrumental, although on close listening the two do blend from time to time. The four sections build in complexity until the last part is almost baroque in feeling.
The ECM Recordings is a solid selection of the music of one of America’s most innovative composers from a key period in his career. It’s a must-have for anyone interested in contemporary American music.