We are celebrating Steve Reich’s 80th birthday in great style with a 24/7 streaming marathon of his music. Tune in all day!
We’re also paying tribute with reflections on these three ECM recordings, re-released in honor of the big 8-0.
Two sonic worlds collide in Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians: the mechanical and the meditative. The piece layers the intimate, organic rhythm of the human breath above the hypnotic rhythmic pulse of pianos and mallet instruments, thus creating two different aural experiences of time—simultaneously.
Composed amidst the social revolution following the Vietnam War, Music for 18 Musicians spoke volumes about that period in American history: its driving rhythms and circling melodies suggested optimism, harmony, and progress. In fact, Reich included more harmonic movement in the first five minutes of this work than in any other composition of his to date.
He based the entire work on a cycle of eleven chords played at the very beginning of the piece, which are then stretched out across the entire 60 minutes to serve as a larger harmonic backdrop—effectively turning that eleven-chord cycle into a pulsing cantus for the entire piece.
Masterfully performed with his Grammy award-winning ensemble Steve Reich and Musicians, Reich arranged for each of these harmonic shifts to be cued audibly by the melodies of the metallophone (a vibraphone with no motor) rather than through a conductor. His reasoning? “Audible cues become part of the music and allow the musicians to keep listening.” – by Maggie Molloy
The second disc of the ECM New Series anniversary set of Reich recordings features three works: the Music for a Large Ensemble of 1978, Violin Phase of 1967, and the Octet of 1979. A reissue of the label’s 1980 release, the polished sound of this recording is somewhat astounding. The performances are fantastic and un-conducted, performed by a crack team of chamber musicians that play with excellent pitch and execute the rapid, sparkling eighth note runs that drive this music with flawless technique. The composer himself performs on piano in Music for a Large Ensemble. Though occasionally balance can feel biased toward the endlessly jamming notes in the piano and mallet instruments to the detriment of female voices or long string chords, the sound of this recording is generally well rounded. These performances don’t at all have the feel of a premiere recording of music that is brand-new; instead it seems like we’re hearing accounts of works that have been performed many times and have already entered the canon of late-20th Century music, as Reich’s works now have. It may have been recorded in 1980, but this is an album fit for 2016 and beyond.
This part of ECM’s exploration offers us different perspectives of Reich’s instrumental works, both large and small. Shem Guibbory’s performance of Reich’s Violin Phase is placed between the two ensemble works, standing apart both in character and in compositional process. A recording of the violinist performing one phrase is repeated, with the same recording layered over itself first in perfect unison. The recordings are then shifted gradually so they play in an ever-changing canon, eventually adding a third recording of a countermelody that helps to spin the work into an almost symphonic concert piece. Rhythm alone drives the tension and release of this work, as we are occasionally frustrated by the chaos of the sound of the same phrase being played just slightly out of sync with itself, but find repose when the clatter locks into a cohesive rhythm. I love the way the stereo sound is mixed in this recording, such that we can feel the different Shems standing in a sort of semicircular ensemble in front of us.
The addition of voices to the mix of a wind and percussion instruments, as Reich does in Music for a Large Ensemble, is an interesting choice on multiple levels. First, it most explicitly characterizes this genre of Reich’s music as a result of the singing of the human voice, when in other Reich works, the constant bouncing of the eighth note runs can make it feel mechanical and, well, un-singable. This quick figuration often disguises the more vocal qualities of his instrumental works like the Octet, which features long lines in the string instruments, and in some works Reich makes a point to use brass and woodwinds to play a recurring chordal figure that can only be played in one breath. The human breath is then more of a measure of time in Reich’s music than the bar, that tyrannical measure of music that organizes everything into groups of four beats (or less often in Reich’s music, three, five, six, etc.). Thus, the use of voices and trumpets in Music for a Large Ensemble not only adds interesting timbres of sound, it changes our perception of units of time. The juxtaposition of these fast and slow elements happening simultaneously (and often in canon within themselves), shows Reich firing on all cylinders.
These effects that work so well in Music for a Large Ensemble are accomplished on a slightly more intimate level in the Octet “Eight Lines,” where two pianos are the only instruments of percussion used, joined by two flutes, two clarinets, and four strings. Like an intricate painting that reveals stunning detail when viewed very close but grandiose images when viewed from far away, Steve Reich’s music offers different levels of experience when listened to in different ways. A gradual zooming-out seems to take place over the course of the Octet, with the long line in the strings that starts with a single chord transforming into a long, flowing melody by the end, threatening to overwhelm the eighth note motor of the pianos and woodwinds.
All three performances have a sparkling joy to them which, beyond showing a technical mastery of the many elements of these works that are difficult to accomplish in precisely the same way throughout, show off groups of musicians that act as fantastic advocates for Reich’s music. In a way, the fact that so much of this music could be performed well by computers in all their unfailing precision is dangerous, because it is this element of joy that is the crucial end goal of all those notes and repeating figures, an element of distinctly human touch. It makes the artistry of these Reich recordings all the more valuable. – Geoffrey Larson
In celebration of Steve Reich’s 80th birthday, I am delighted to be writing about the re-release of the fantastic 1981 ECM recording of Tehillim. This is a superb recording of a fascinating piece. This performance (which includes the composer as a player) is practically perfect, showcasing the beautifully clean, warm, and streamlined sound of Reich’s music. Furthermore, the intricately economical construction of this piece, which reveals more layers of internal connection the more deeply one delves into it, makes these two tracks an excellent way to spend 30 minutes.
In Reich’s own words, Tehillim can be seen as both “traditional and new at the same time.” This pleasing dichotomy, referring to both Reich’s own traditions and those of Western Art Music as a whole, runs throughout the piece. Tehillim is Steve Reich’s first explicit musical foray into his Jewish heritage. Reich began studying Jewish cantillation in 1976, and traveled to Israel the following year; these experiences would contribute to the eventual composition of Tehillim in 1981. In total, even though this piece diverges from many of Reich’s typical practices, Tehillim still has the balance of energetic and meditative elements that makes all of Reich’s music so appealing. Additionally, Tehillim is remarkable in the tightness and efficiency of its construction; many elements of this piece interlock and relate to one another in a manner that is extremely pleasing in its economical nature.
The balance between old and new in Tehillim is in large part connected to Reich’s choice of source text. The word “Tehillim” is the Hebrew word for Psalms; it from that book of the bible that the text for this piece comes. In making this choice, Reich gave himself space in which to create; in almost all modern versions of Judaism, the traditional of singing the Psalms has been lost. This allowed Reich to select source text that was not loaded with accompanying musical baggage.
Getting into the actual music of Tehillim, many elements of Tehillim center on the source text. The instrumentation, musical patterns, and harmonic movements all have roots in the Psalms. Psalm 150, an excerpt of which forms the text for the final part of Tehillim, even provides basic instructions for instrumentation! It mentions drums, strings, winds, and multiple types of cymbals as instruments with which to execute praise, and all of those instruments are represented in the piece. Reich’s inclusion of clapping and maracas also have roots in the music of the Biblical period.
The rhythmic patterns in Tehillim are significantly different from minimalism for which Reich is best known. Instead of the short repeating patterns seen in piece like Music for 18 Musicians, the rhythms in in Tehillim stem from the rhythms of the text itself; Reich would later use this technique in pieces including The Cave (1993) and Different Trains (1998). So, instead of the “traditional” repeated short rhythms expected in Reich’s music, he achieves continuity with four-part canons, “functional” harmony, and imitative counterpoint, techniques which are more closely associated with more traditional Western Art Music than with Reich’s music.
Although those traditional techniques come from the Common Practice period of Western Art Music, there are other influences here, too, that contribute to the juxtaposition of old and new in Tehillim. In addition to the biblically-inspired instrumentation, the vocal parts are sung without vibrato, harkening back to ancient singing styles. Additionally, the rhythmic action that underpins most of the work has the complex interlocking structures that, while common in much of Reich’s music, do not come from any Western tradition.
Despite all of the intricately crafted and tightly interrelated elements of this piece that apparently diverge from Reich’s standard techniques, Tehillim still sounds like Steve Reich. While not repetitive, the rhythms here still have an energetic constancy that recalls Reich’s other work. The non-vibrato vocal parts also sound like Reich; the same technique is present in Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices, and Organ and Music for 18 Musicians. Also, in Tehillim, as in Music for 18 Musicians, the voices are used as instrumental colors, although since there is text Tehillim, the voices do more than just add color. However, Reich does not seem to draw a distinct line between these two functions of the voice in Tehillim; the voices enunciate the text in repeating phrases, then extend the final sounds of those segments to blend back into the ensemble color, returning to more purely instrumental vocal sounds of Music for 18 Musicians. So, while the four-part canons and (gasp!) functional harmony may not be expected, Tehillim is clearly still classic Reich.
Overall, the effect of this piece is one of meditation followed by joy. The instrumentation, although strongly tied to the Psalm 150 text, provides a comforting sense of intimacy when combined with Reich’s supremely effective orchestration. This is perhaps a reflection of the meditative and self-searching origins of the piece.
Like many larger-scale works of minimalism, the feeling at the end of this piece is one of a coming ecstasy. It is the building knowledge that a tremendously positive event is imminent, and that the event will be overwhelming but also at least partially unknowable. In the case of a work focused on exploration of religion, this feeling might be better described as the sense of approaching a great mystery: one which will be joyful and significant, even though it remains eternally enigmatic. – by Seth Tompkins
And for some more memories down Steve Reich lane, here are some of our past features on his music:
Videos produced by Second Inversion:
And a bonus tribute from community member Michael Schell:
Steve Reich at 80
A triumvirate of composers — Steve Reich, Terry Riley and Philip Glass — has come to epitomize minimalism as it coalesced in New York in the 1960s. Of the three, Riley can claim precedence (his In C got the ball rolling in 1964), and Glass can claim the most commercial success. But I think it’s Reich who earns the most admiration from other composers, perhaps by a wide margin. It’s not just because his music is sophisticated and groundbreaking, but also because it has a kind of integrity that reflects the rigor and commitment to exploration that Reich has always brought to his creative process (and indeed to his life). Consider the range of Reich’s early experiments:
- Tape pieces where he layers short loops of recorded speech until they become melodic (Come Out)
- Live electronic music (Pendulum Music)
- “Phase” pieces for a solo instrument playing in and out of sync with its prerecorded copy
- The piece Four Organs, unique even in Reich’s output, basically a 20-minute rhythmic elaboration of a single E11 chord
It wasn’t until after he went to Ghana in 1970 to study Ewe drumming that Reich’s most recognizable style took shape: percussion-centric ensembles playing highly contrapuntal music built from short, repeated, syncopated phrases. This is the sound world of his most famous works (like Music for 18 Musicians) and there was every opportunity to cash in and churn out piece after piece using the same formula. But instead Reich kept moving forward, trying out atonal harmonies in The Desert Music, digital sampling in Different Trains and intermedia in The Cave, always meticulously crafting the finished product to his highly self-critical standards.
At 80, Reich has seen his compositions recorded, discussed and analyzed many times over (well, except for Come Out, which lacks a conventional score, though I have a go at transcribing one here). And nowadays it’s easy for composers to write music that sounds like Reich. But it’s the integrity behind Reich’s work that I think will most powerfully define his legacy and keep it relevant for generations to come. – Michael Schell