He was Reich all along
Initially mocked for his minimalism, Steve Reich, at 70, has the last laugh.
African drumming. Coltrane. Balinese gamelan. A fair amount of Jr. Walker and the All Stars. And Stockhausen and Bach. It might not be the most obvious shopping list to create a cross-genre music revolution, but it worked for a young Steve Reich. Lionized and reviled in equal measure in the 1960s and ’70s for his propulsive minimalist works, the drummer and composer is now a grand old man of the avant-garde, and turns 70 on Tuesday 3.
Big birthday plans are in the works for late October at Carnegie Hall and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and Nonesuch has released a five-CD retrospective of back-catalog recordings. Here, there’s a grand total of one concert, which hardly seems a fitting homage to this deceptively simple but influential composer.
“There’s still a lot there [in Reich’s works] that’s difficult for us to get our brains around,” says Aaron Cassidy, the Northwestern University composition prof who organized the Reich tribute concert, taking place Tuesday 3 at NU’s Pick-Staiger Concert Hall. But Reich is that rare classical composer whose influence isn’t confined to his nominal genre.
Reich speaks in the same awed tones about Bach and Coltrane—a kindred minimalist maverick whose modal works from the early 1960s, like Africa/Brass, also sit on one chord for a long time. “[People’d ask Coltrane]: ‘What’s the changes?’ And he’d say, ‘E.’ ‘No, what’s the changes, man?’ ‘E! E for half an hour!’?” the fast-talking New York native says. The freedom to do very little with the harmony opened up some avenues for the young composer. Jr. Walker’s repeating bass line in his Motown hit “Shotgun” gave Reich a similar epiphany. “It never changes. It leads to the B section…sorry, man, no B. It’s all A, all the way.”
That pop influence carried over into pieces like Music for 18 Musicians; Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ; and, to a lesser extent, Drumming, all from the early to mid-’70s. Stereolab’s loungey beats and marimba bear a distinct trace of Reich’s repetitive works, and Tortoise’s electronic pulsing nods in his direction, too. The strictly rhythmic, repeating drums and keening strings in Sufjan Stevens’s “Chicago”? They’re distant cousins to Music for 18. Then there’s Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche, who takes up Reich’s innovations at their most fundamental level on his 2005 solo disc, Mobile (Nonesuch).
“[Reich’s] a drummer, so he uses a lot of great, percussive colors,” says Kotche, rattling off a list of percussion instruments Reich uses in ways other composers don’t. “I just really fell for the process of it all, what was behind the music, which you didn’t even need to know to appreciate it.” But Kotche does appreciate it, bristling at Cassidy’s observation that “Some people listen to this stuff as wallpaper music, and chill-out music.”
“I don’t agree with that at all,” Kotche says. A lot of the Cologne, Germany, electronic music (much of the Kompakt label’s stable, and Wolfgang Voigt) was inspired by minimalism, he explains, and that influence wouldn’t have occurred if they hadn’t been listening. “It can be good background music, but it isn’t for me.”
For the concert—where the music definitely won’t be in the background—the program is split between Reich’s early works and his more recent compositions. Come Out, the 1967 tape piece that samples a civil-rights protester’s retelling of how he received his wounds, and which essentially put Reich on the map, will be played in the lobby prior to the performance. Inside the hall, Reich’s two phase pieces, Violin Phase and Piano Phase, complete the picture of where he began, before moving on to the interlocking beats drawn from African music in his 1985 piece New York Counterpoint (Music for 18, its prototype, won’t be played). The original calls for clarinet and tape (a recording of ten other clarinets), but Northwestern grad Susan Fancher has arranged it for saxophone.
“I was a kid who loved jazz,” Reich says, “and when I was 14 started listening to bebop and Miles Davis and the drummer Kenny Clarke and wanted to be like Kenny Clarke, so perhaps it’s poetic justice that jazz musicians and ‘progressive-rock types’ got into what I was doing. It’s not a mystery; as a matter of fact, it makes a lot of sense.”
NU blows out Reich’s candles for him Tuesday 3.