Steve Reich is the kind of musical figure that lives within several different worlds. He began in tape experimentations, looping, and sound phasing while making social and political statements in the mid-60s. His piece “Come Out” is a dizzying and hallucinogenic piece of sound manipulation that also served as a voice for the civil rights movement. “It’s Gonna Rain” was another sound experiment from the same era. Though, Reich wasn’t just an avante garde composer. His work began to delve into percussion, organ, guitar, piano, strings, and smaller ensembles. His musical world was one in which instruments seemingly morphed into other sounds, just by minute time changes and phrasings. Reich established himself at the same time as other minimalist composers were coming up. Guys like Terry Riley, Philip Glass, and La Monte Young were his peers and were blowing minds by creating music in a new and personal way.
For me, Music For 18 Musicians is the quintessential Steve Reich piece. That album inspired me in so many ways and it’s the proto-Reich sound. Subtle musical phrases drifting in and out of each other, voices hovering over woodwinds, and a steady organic buzz throughout. For something that didn’t come out of the counterculture it was as mind-expanding as anything coming from the the Berlin School/Komische scene. Drumming, Octet, Electric Counterpoint, and Clapping Music are all essential works by Reich, but Music For 18 Musicians is an album I can listen to anytime or anywhere.
Steve Reich has been working and writing pretty much since the mid-60s. Nearly every year there’s a new piece coming from him. He’s in his 80s now and there doesn’t seem to be any slowing down. His most recent work is Pulse/Quartet for Nonesuch Records. It shows the master still continuing his trend of greatness through minimalism and phrasing.
“Pulse” is a 14-minute work performed by the International Contemporary Ensemble and was originally debuted in 2015. It’s a light and airy piece for woodwinds and strings. By any other composer this may come across as too little, but in Steve Reich’s hands there’s a certain heft under the “light as a feather” facade. Every so often things veer to a slightly darker realm but quickly comes back up for air. It’s a stunning piece if you let it wash over you.
“Quartet” is broken up into three parts and was written for two vibraphones and two pianos. The pieces were performed by the Colin Currie Group. “I: Fast”, “II: Slow”, and “III: Fast” feel as much of the jazz world as the classical world. This is the first time Reich has written for just piano and vibraphone alone, yet it sounds like a very natural fit for him. “Fast” comes across like daytime traffic with a manic pace and excitable disposition, while “Slow” feels like late night moods; street light serenades and views from high rise apartments. It has a very New York feel, in both its instrumentation and melancholy sway. “Fast” returns as the morning commute from last evening’s reprieve from the hectic swirl of the outside world.
Pulse/Quartet is yet another stunning display of a master at work. While maybe not as forward-moving as some of his earlier work, Steve Reich at 80 is as vibrant and commanding as some in their 30s.