Steve Reich at 80: honoring a modern master

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Steve Reich Jeffrey Herman

Growing up, music was divided into two separate and distinct experiences for me. On one hand was the education in rock I received from my older sister, whose Steely Dan, Joni Mitchell and Stevie Wonder records became my introduction to pop songcraft and performance (albeit very sophisticated ones). On the other was the exposure I got to classical music through my dad's prized Tchaikovsky, Beethoven and Strauss LPs, and our monthly excursions to see the orchestra — where I was expected to sit still and contemplate what I was hearing. It was an activity I hated at first, but which I grew to appreciate and eventually actually figured out how to get into. Through all of this, though, I always thought these two worlds would exist separately, because their respective languages were so different. They seemed totally mutually exclusive. And they were — until in my twenties, when I discovered the music of Steve Reich.

I'm not alone in having had this experience. Fairly quickly, I came to find out that millions of other rock kids had had their minds blown in a similar way by Reich's compositions: music that was certainly not "classical" in the way that we'd all been taught to expect — with its episodic, Wagnerian (read: boring) ponderousness and air of High Manners — and yet definitely not rock either, since it was played in concert halls and with the traditional instruments of classical music like violins, reeds and xylophones. What we'd responded to was a quality that Reich himself refers to as one of his fundamental animating principles (and even name-checks literally in the subheadings of his best known work, "Music for 18 Musicians"): the idea of pulse.

Reich's music, put simply, has a beat — albeit one that's usually only implied. Many of his best-known and best-loved works, composed mainly in the 1970s, are comprised of repeating (but slowly transforming) motivic cells, phrases that bubble and groove along like a kind of sonic perpetual-motion machine. When I first discovered it, I remember thinking that it was like musical sculpture; less figurative like Michelangelo's "David" and more about pure form, like Brancusi's "Bird in Space." It was also, somehow, simultaneously manic and peaceful.

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'Reich Remixed' album cover Nonesuch Records

Over the years, I've realized that the act of repetition that makes up the works in Reich's defining-era compositions of the '70s and '80s is the core quality that acts as either their primary attracting or repelling agent. It's either the musical golden-fleece that opens the door to a new kind of sonic enlightenment for you (as it did me), or it absolutely drives you up the wall, as it does for legions of more traditionally minded classical-music listeners. This is why Steve Reich's works, sadly, don't make their way onto the playlist of most classical radio stations with any regularity; most listeners expecting Mozart and Brahms go into fits when hearing Reich's little phrases repeat over and over. But if you're a young person raised on pop (and especially the burbling, pulsing sounds of electronica or contemporary club or dance music), you immediately get it. And that connection was revealed perhaps nowhere as well as in the 1999 CD Reich Remixed, a collection of Steve Reich pieces remixed by contemporary electronica artists and DJs like Howie B and DJ Spooky. Reich Remixed reveals the truth that was hidden in plain sight for decades: Steve Reich's music is in fact proto-electronica, the template for a vast swath of electronic music that followed it, only traditionally scored and played acoustically by classically trained musicians.

For me, though, a kid who was into the disparate and non-converging worlds of rock and classical music (and never really into electronica, save for a brief flirtation with Kraftwerk as a kid), Steve Reich represented a merging of practically everything that I loved. Hearing Robert Fripp's polyrhythmic finger-picking on King Crimson's Discipline and Talking Heads' "I Zimbra" in high school, I'd thought I'd discovered a completely sui generis form of alien, Martian music — until finding out that Steve Reich had pioneered this exact form of interlocking, "phasing" style years before. Instantly, pieces like "Music for 18 Musicians," "Octet" and "Eight Lines" became a perfectly formed "middle way" between the worlds of rock and classical for me. It was music that was being played (at that time at least) in the more experimental spaces of New York rather than Carnegie Hall — but still, the art spaces, not CBGBs. For a kid who was neither classically trained nor a true punk but still looking for beauty and liberation from rules at the same time, it was like I'd found my people.

As Steve Reich turns 80, he has legions upon legions of musical grandchildren to call his own. From young classical composers who heard in his music his blessing to reject the thorny, overwrought modernism of the conservatory composition department and embrace simplicity and accessible tonality, to rock- or electronica-weaned kids who became inspired to explore the vast palette of classical possibilities, his influence and his flock grows exponentially with each passing musical era. And today, the classical world has caught up with him in earnest, honoring him with the respect due a modern master. The American composer and critic Kyle Gann has asserted that Reich "may be considered, by general acclamation, America's greatest living composer," and history will no doubt attest to his influence perhaps being greater than any other during our era (even, I would emphatically argue, his American mate in minimalism, Philip Glass). For me, though, Steve Reich will always be the musician who brought together the previously segregated hemispheres of my personal musical life into single, unified pulse.

Resources

Steve Reich - official site