Minimalist composer Steve Reich is best known for his experiments into “phase music”—that is, music which features two (or more) musicians playing identical lines of music, synchronously at first, but gradually shifting out of unison with one another. As the cycle slowly unfolds, new melodies are created by the ever-changing aural interactions of the two identical lines of music.
But just like his phase music, Reich never repeated the same thing exactly twice—in fact, over the past five decades he has built an extraordinary compositional career by maximizing very minimal melodic content. That’s because his compositions are music of process, and his melodies are created through use of repetitive figures, slow harmonic rhythm and canons, perpetual cycles, and, of course, unwavering originality.
With his explorations into rhythm and articulation, Reich redefined the melodic possibilities of percussion instruments in particular—which is why Third Coast Percussion decided to pay tribute to the minimalist mastermind in their latest album, titled “Steve Reich.”
Comprised of percussionists David Skidmore, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin, and Sean Connors, Third Coast Percussion is committed to exploring and expanding the vast sonic possibilities of the percussion repertoire—and there is plenty to explore in Reich’s work alone.
In their new album, the quartet surveys the composer’s works for percussion over a four-decade span, beginning with the most recent: his three-movement Mallet Quartet. Composed in 2009, the work is scored for two vibraphones and two five-octave marimbas. Third Coast Percussion twirls effortlessly through the circling motives and interlocking canons of the two outer movements, transitioning seamlessly both in and out of the central slow movement. A stark musical contrast between the thinly textured, almost transparent middle movement against the persistent pulse of the outer two brings color and narrative to the piece.
What follows is a performance of Reich’s 1985 Sextet featuring pianists David Friend and Oliver Hagen. Scored for three marimbas, two vibraphones, two bass drums, crotales, sticks, tam-tam, two pianos, and two synthesizers, it’s safe to say it’s not your average percussion lineup. And yet, Third Coast and company succeed in creating a sonically cohesive narrative, each instrument carefully balanced against the rest of the group. Over the course the piece’s five continuous movements, repeating melodic motives and chord cycles form expansive, gradually evolving musical textures—and the musicians glide through these timbral changes with the utmost sensitivity and precision.
Peter Martin and Sean Connors perform the next duet on the album: the virtuosic “Nagoya Marimbas.” Composed in 1994, the piece harkens back to some of Reich’s earlier explorations into phase music, though in this work the repeating patterns are more melodically developed and change more frequently. Martin and Connors delicately shape and shade each pattern with artistry and finesse—making this deceptively buoyant piece sound deceptively easy.
The album comes to a close with a performance of Reich’s 1973 composition “Music for Pieces of Wood” featuring percussionist Matthew Duvall. Scored for just five pieces of wood tuned to specific pitches, the work reminds us of the primeval nature of percussion—and the vast possibilities for music with even the simplest of instruments. Of course, it also allows Third Coast an opportunity to showcase their incredible rhythmic precision and skill without timbral or textural distractions. The piece is an entire kaleidoscope of sound, a pointillist painting of constantly shifting musical patterns.
Because if there’s one thing Reich has taught us, it’s that a little musical material can take you a very, very long way. And if there’s one thing Third Coast Percussion has taught us with this album, it’s that Reich’s music is so much more than just a phase.