Monday, October 3, 2016

Happy Birthday, Steve, and Happy Rosh HaShanah

Today is composer Steve Reich's 80th birthday. Born Oct. 3, 1936 in New York, since the 1970s he has been laying a new foundation for music composition that has been widely influential, not least on myself! I first heard his music in 1974 or 75. This is also the Jewish New Year, which I thought I would mention since Steve is Jewish. And by the way, listening to an interview a while back, I realized that I have been pronouncing his name wrong forever. It looks like it could be pronounced as if it were German, i.e. with a throaty "ch" like the Spanish "j", but he himself pronounces it "sh" as in "marsh". I stand corrected!

As I don't have any exotic fruit for you, as is traditional on Rosh HaShanah (plus, I'm not even Jewish) I think we should just listen to some music by Steve Reich, someone who, in the words of music critic Andrew Clements, is one of "a handful of living composers who can legitimately claim to have altered the direction of musical history." Yep, right up there alongside Claudio Monteverdi and Joseph Haydn.

Six Pianos is the first piece I heard by Steve Reich. A music professor played part of it in a theory class as what he called "ear-training". This was in 1974 and few people had heard his music. The class was divided into two groups, one looking quizzically at one another and thinking "why isn't anything happening?" and the other smiling and thinking "listen to those cool changes." This is a live performance in Amsterdam in 1976 with the composer himself on one of the parts. He is on the right at the back:

The next time I was in the music listening library I grabbed a black box that contained the piece Drumming that I thought might be interesting and that was one of the most transformative experiences in my life as a musician. It was my habit, when I had a spare period and no immediate things that needed to be done, to hit the listening room and grab a few LPs of new music. If nothing grabbed me in the first minute or so, I would just move on. That day I had some stuff by Ligeti and Stockhausen, some pieces for three and four orchestras, as I recall. After listening to some of that extremely complex music, I put on the Reich:

That is a live recording from 1971. You probably can't imagine the impact that the extreme simplicity (at least, at the beginning) had! The idea of reducing music back to the most fundamental property of all, a simple pulse, was an idea whose radical power, it seems, only Steve Reich could imagine. He was also the one who added the eight-note pulse to Terry Riley's In C, which is probably what makes that piece.

The next piece that really caught my attention was Eight Lines, written in 1979. Here is a recent recording by Ensemble Modern with the score:

But the piece that really won the wider attention of not only classical, but pop musicians, was his Music for Eighteen Musicians (often performed by twenty or more). Here is that piece and I strongly suggest you listen to it all the way through. It is an astonishingly tightly-written, but wide-ranging piece that achieves real transcendence. It was written in 1974-76 and this is the original recording:

Since then, Steve Reich's palette has grown and grown with oratorio-like pieces like The Desert Music for voices and instruments on poetry by William Carlos Williams:

Serious music by a serious man. It is simply not an exaggeration to say that Steve Reich really has changed the course of music history.

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