Played all over the world, adored by the younger generation, the founding father of minimalism has even exerted an influence on the rock and electro scenes. We met Steve Reich a few years ago for a wide-ranging interview in which he looked back at his musical career with humour and insight. Time has passed since then, but neither age nor pandemic has diminished the energy and creativity of the composer who will celebrate his 85th birthday on 3 October. And he will have much to celebrate: the pope of repetitive music was not idle during lockdown, writing Traveler’s Prayer, composed in isolation in Los Angeles. The work will be performed this autumn by the Colin Currie Group and Synergy Vocals at four European dates (Amsterdam, London, Hamburg and Paris). This is our chance to celebrate the New York musician with a subjective top-10 list of his most iconic works presented in chronological order. Happy Birthday, Mister Reich!
It’s Gonna Rain (1965)
Certainly not the easiest-listening of his works thanks to its austerity, It's Gonna Rain remains an essential piece by Steve Reich because it laid the foundations of his work around phasing, which proved brilliant, and an enormous contribution to the history of music. In 1964, Reich was living in San Francisco. As he walked, tape recorder in hand, through Union Square Park, he saw a black preacher in mid-sermon. The man's very theatrical posture and the rhythm and melody of his voice appealed to the composer, who instinctively began to record it. "Actually the going out of phase was kind of an accident. I had two identical tapes on which Brother Walter was saying 'It's gonna rain' and I was playing around with two cheap tape recorders [...] It turned out that the two devices were lined up in unison and one gradually began to outpace the other. [...] On hearing this, I realised that the process (the gradual exploration of all the relationships offered by the canon) was more interesting than any particular musical relationship." Phasing, the gradual shifting of two patterns initially played in unison, offered Reich the ability to exploit an infinite number of rhythmic and melodic combinations. He repeated the process using tapes on Come Out and Melodica (1966).
Reich soon felt limited by the use of magnetic tapes, while doubting the possibilities of applying phasing to instrumental music. But the composer was not discouraged and, in order to practise, wrote a short motif which a few months later formed the basis of Piano Phase (1967). He first practised playing against a tape, before entrusting the score to his pianist friend Arthur Murphy. To their great surprise, the two musicians managed to phase one another manually, without the help of any recorded medium! Phasing was then ready to be used live, by flesh and blood musicians. Convinced that this was inexhaustible creative material, Reich composed Violin Phase (1967) for four violins or one violin and three tapes.
But it was with Drumming (1971) that the composer raised phase music to the highest level of sophistication. Reich had just returned from a stay in Ghana, where he had studied drumming with the master Gideon Alorworye, and he was feeling an urge to compose a piece for percussion ensemble. Extremely ambitious in terms of both duration and the number of instruments involved—14 in all—the work required the utmost concentration and total coordination between all the performers. This is one of Reich's most hypnotic pieces, immersing the listener in a waking dream for over an hour. Among all the existing recordings to date, our favourite is a fairly recent one by the Ictus Ensemble, which offers brilliant speed and precision.
Clapping Music (1972)
After the army of wild percussionists who were deployed for Drumming, and perhaps guided by a desire to spare himself as a composer, Reich decided in 1972 to return to a simpler language: "Late in 1971 I composed Clapping Music out of a desire to create a piece of music that would need no instruments at all beyond the human body." No cumbersome piano or heavy rows of marimbas here: just two performers clapping the same rhythmic pattern. The work spans a first break in the composer's trajectory: here, the phase shift is no longer effected gradually but follows a pattern of stages. After repeating the pattern in unison a certain number of times (usually 6, 8 or 12), one of the two performers starts the next cycle one beat ahead; and so on, until returning to the original unison. Each cycle gives the illusion of variation in the motif, but in fact the musicians play the same thing throughout the piece. It's a beautiful magic trick played by Reich on his audience, and it has an enchanting effect whenever it is performed in concert. Despite its great simplicity, Clapping Music is by no means an incidental element in the New York composer's catalogue, since he reused the rhythmic pattern in several other major works such as Music for Pieces of Wood (1973), Music for 18 Musicians (1976) and Music for a Large Ensemble (1978).
Music for 18 Musicians (1976)
There are works of art about which one gets the feeling that they have a life of their own; or that the works know more than we do about the most mysterious and ineffable aspects of existence. Music for 18 Musicians is one such piece. This is Steve Reich's utmost masterpiece, and arguably one of the greatest pages in the history of twentieth century music. It's hard to know where to begin describing the extraordinary power that this piece holds: perhaps it lies in the meeting of temporalities that constantly telescope through one another. Over the course of an hour, the pianos and percussion set a steady pace, counterbalanced by the slow crescendo/decrescendo breaths of the voices and wind instruments. Each of the 13 sections is subtly introduced by the metallophone, which opens the way to a self-contained musical moment that is always perfectly coherent with the overall structure. This work is also an opportunity for Reich to highlight his sense for harmony, who had previously favoured rhythm over melody: "The role of harmonic development in the first five minutes of Music for 18 Musicians is more important than in any piece I have composed to date." This masterpiece has since inspired artists from all disciplines: the Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, whose Rain—also a masterpiece of contemporary dance—is based on Reich's music, is particularly notable. Music for 18 Musicians has been the subject of many recordings of very high quality, but it would be difficult to outdo the 1998 version done by the Steve Reich & Musicians for Nonesuch Records. This label remains one of the best ambassadors for the American composer and his music.
At the dawn of the 1980s, Reich, who had found worldwide acclaim with Music for 18 Musicians, was experiencing a drawn-out artistic and spiritual crisis. He had been reconnecting with his Jewish roots for some time, studying Hebrew Cantillation at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Tehillim (the word means 'psalm' in Hebrew) is the first musical application of the teachings the composer studied in the late 1970s. The work brings together four psalms from the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible. Apart from the tambourines, a distant survival of the drums mentioned in the text, the instruments and melody do not meet any theological requirements: "One of the reasons I chose to set Psalms as opposed to parts of the Torah or Prophets is that the oral tradition among Jews in the West for singing Psalms has been lost. (It has been maintained by Yemenite Jews.) This meant that I was free to compose the melodies for Tehillim without a living oral tradition to either imitate or ignore." Here, Reich focusses on the text and its meaning, and abandons repetition and shorter motifs in order to make the writing cleave closely to the rhythm of the words. Of the various recordings of this most spiritual work, the version by the Schönberg Ensemble and Percussion Group The Hague, conducted by Reinbert de Leeuw (once again on Nonesuch), is surely the most memorable and enduring. The sopranos Barbara Borden and Tannie Willemstijn are dazzling.
Eight Lines (1983)
Eight Lines is a reprise of Octet, an earlier work by Steve Reich which he wrote in 1979. In this new version, the composer adds a second string quartet, which allows the instrumentalists to share some difficult sequences. The increase in the number of strings increases the work's expressive power, a choice that is all the more welcome for live performances. Written in 5/4 time, an irregular metre that Reich is particularly fond of, the piece confronts each instrument's harshest tessituras and makes the bass and treble dance in a sensual dissonance. There are a fair number of recordings, the majority of which miss the span. Fortunately, the Ensemble Modern made a very fine version for RCA, where the instruments manage the stinging attacks very well and keep a solid sound balance between one another.
City Life (1995)
"There is something in the New York air that makes sleep useless." The words of Simone de Beauvoir might have been a fine epigraph for Steve Reich's City Life. A magnificent tribute to the Big Apple, City Life evokes the gamut of emotions felt by the visiting traveller to the city across five movements. Reich paints a portrait of a fascinating city, stirred by all kinds of contradictions. He uses a process he had already deployed in Different Trains (1988): the speech melody, in other words doubling recorded voice samples with instruments simultaneously playing the notes that emerge from the spoken words. One can hear thus archetypal figures of New York City: the man yelling "Check it out! " at passersby, the African-American activist in a political meeting ("It's been a honeymoon!"), or the radio exchanges between the city's firefighters during the World Trade Center bombing in 1993. Other samples are added to the score and contribute to this gigantic sound allegory: horns, airbrakes, drills... A querulous portrait of the city that never sleeps, full of optimism and anxiety. Special mention must go to the sublime version by Bradley Lubman who led Steve Reich & Musicians on behalf of… Nonesuch, naturally.
Three Tales (2002)
Often overlooked because of the logistical difficulties involved in performing it in concert, Three Tales is a hybrid work combining opera, video and documentary. Conceived in collaboration with the video artist Beryl Korot (incidentally the composer's wife), this politically-engaged piece offers an ambivalent meditation on the technological discoveries of the 20th century. Is science a vehicle for progress or alienation? That's the question asked here. In this modern fable, Reich and Korot take a unique look at three major events of the last century: the burning of the airship Hindenburg in 1937, the nuclear tests on Bikini Atoll in 1947, and the cloning of the sheep Dolly in 1996. Although the work was originally conceived as a combination of live music and film—Beryl Korot's chilling video collages can be found on YouTube—the musical part is very evocative all by itself. Steve Reich & Musicians, conducted by Bradley Lubman, had the presence of mind to set down a striking recording for Nonesuch Records.
By dint of having influenced the rock scene (Brian Eno, Jonny Greenwood, Pat Metheny to name a few), Steve Reich wound up taking a keen interested in those who claimed to be his spiritual children... and he tried delving into rock music himself! He had already made a sally into that world in 1987 with Electric Counterpoint for electric guitar and tape recorder. In 2x5, he pushed the envelope yet further, this time writing a piece for two rock quintets. Drums, bass guitar, overdriven electric guitar... We are stunned (and delighted!) by this surprising turn taken by the composer, who sets out on a road we never expected him to take. 2x5 throws a beautiful bridge between two worlds that are too often cut off from, or even opposed to one another. Fortunately, a younger generation now seems to want to dispel this misunderstanding: as evidence, see the flawless and very welcome recording by the group Bang on a Can (All Stars), published by Nonesuch.
WTC 9/11 (2010)
Commissioned by the Kronos Quartet, WTC 9/11 is one of Reich’s darkest works. Reich tackles the tragedy of September 11, 2001—the title was unambiguous—in a three-movement piece of terrifying power. A string quartet provides a speech melody accompaniment to excerpts from the Norad (North American Aerospace Defense Command) and FDNY (New York Fire Department) archives: recordings made on the day of the attacks. We can also hear interviews with relatives, as well as a Jewish cantor saying a prayer for the dead. Reich delivers a very dignified piece which is something like a documentary, but manages to avoid falling into voyeurism. In 2017, Matthias Pintscher, at the head of the Ensemble Intercontemporain, gave a deeply moving performance of the work, with the quartet putting its heart and soul into honouring the memory of the thousands who died.