Nowadays, the word innovative is often overused in journalism, especially by those who make a living writing about music. However, eighty-one year American composer Steve Reich, who was one of the pioneers of minimalist music in the late-sixties, has spent a lifetime creating ambitious, groundbreaking and innovative music that has influenced and inspired several generations of musicians. This includes the music on Pulse/Quartet which was recently reissued by Nonesuch and is a reminder of a true pioneer of minimalist music. Steve Reich along with Phillip Glass, Terry Riley and La Monte Young pioneered minimalist music in the late-sixties and has spent lifetime writing, recording and performing innovative music.
Since then, many musicians have embraced some of Steve Reich’s many musical innovations over the past six decades. One of his earliest innovations was using tape loops to create phasing patterns in his minimalist composition It’s Gonna Rain in 1965 and Come Out which was released a year later, in 1966. Many musicians who heard It’s Gonna Rain and Come Out, would also go on to use tape loops to create phasing patterns, and later, would incorporate some of Steve Reich’s other ideas into their music.
This included Steve Reich’s use of simple, audible processes which he used to explore a variety of musical concepts. A case in point was Pendulum Music which was composed August 1968 and was revised in May 1973, and was example of process music. The origins of Pendulum Music can be traced to the day that Steve Reich swung a microphone like a cowboy’s lasso and realised that this produced a feedback. Having made this discovery, he set out to compose for an: “orchestra” of microphones.
That was how Steve Reich found himself in a studio in May 1973 where microphones and speakers were suspended from the roof to create phasing feedback tones during Pendulum Music. Steve Reich pulled the microphones back and let them swing and then switched them on, watching as gravity caused them to with at swing various speeds and create different levels of squealing feedback. During Pendulum Music, the microphones became the stars of this innovative example of process music, which twenty-six years later, was replicated by Sonic Youth on their album SYR4: Goodbye ‘20th’ Century which was released in November 1999. By then, Sonic Youth were just the latest band to be influenced by Steve Reich.
Nearly nineteen years after Sonic Youth paid homage to Steve Reich, artists and bands are still inspired by pieces like Pendulum Music and Four Organs which was composed in January 1970. Both compositions feature the use of repetitive figures, slow harmonic rhythm and canons, which influenced contemporary music. So much so, that nowadays, Steve Reich is regarded as one of the most important contemporary composers who was written string of innovative compositions.
Among his most important and innovative pieces is Drumming, a ninety minute piece that was inspired after spending five weeks in Ghana where he studied under Ghanaian master drummer Gideon Alorwoyie. Having written Drumming on his return to America, it was performed by Steve Reich and Musicians who were making their debut, and over the next few years, would interpret many of his pieces.
Having performed Drumming, Steve Reich moved on from his “phase shifting” technique, and investigated a verity of other techniques. This included augmentation where the phrases fragments of melody are lengthened. It was during this time that Steve Reich wrote two important compositions Music For Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ and Six Pianos in 1973. However, a year later, Steve Reich returned with omen of his seminal pieces.
This was Music For 18 Musicians which Steve Reich wrote in 1974, and is based on a cycle of eleven chords. It was Steve Reich’s first attempt to write for a large ensemble and saw an increase in psycho-acoustic effects. However, Music For 18 Musician also featured another important factor-the use of human breath, with clarinets and the voice which help add structure and provide a pulse to what became the groundbreaking album Music For 18 Musician which marked Steve Reich’s debut on ECM Records on 1975. Eighteen years later in Confessions Of A Vinyl Junkie David Bowie called Music For 18 Musicians his favourite album. That was no surprise, as it’s one the finest albums of Steve Reich’s long and illustrious career.
By 1978, Steve Reich’s music contained much more harmonic detail and this was something he explored on Music For A Large Ensemble and Steve Reich continued to Reich experiment with: “the human breath as the measure of musical duration…the chords played by the trumpets are written to take one comfortable breath to perform.” Steve Reich continued in his mission to innovate.
When Octet and Steve Reich’s orchestral debut Variations For Winds, Strings and Keyboards were both released in 1979, the influence of biblical bantillation which he had studied in Israel shines through on both albums. This wasn’t the last time that his Jewish heritage influenced Steve Reich.
As the eighties dawned, Steve Reich had established a reputation for writing, recording and performing ambitious, cerebral, innovative and thought-provoking music. That was the case during the eighties, when Steve Reich introduced historical themes to his music, and was heavily inspired by his Jewish heritage. This was apparent on his 1981 composition Tehillim (Psalms), which was very different to anything that Steve Reich had written before. Tehillim was written in a formal structure, makes melody a substantive element and makes use of both formal counterpoint and functional harmony. This was very different to Steve Reich’s previous loosely structured minimalist recordings and saw his music continue to evolve.
That was the case when Steve Reich wrote the three movement Different Trains which was recorded and released by the Kronos Quartet in 1989, and features a string quartet, tape recorders and recorded speech. It provides a melodic, rather than rhythmic function during a thought-provoking album that is full of imagery. In writing the piece, Steve Reich had drawn inspiration to the time he spent between 1939 and 1941 as a teenager riding on trains in California and New York. However, he compares and contrasts his experiences to the children in Europe being transported to their death by Nazi regime. The Kronos Quartet’s album Different Trains won the Grammy Award for Best Classical Contemporary Composition for what was powerful, poignant and thought-provoking album, that was written by fifty-two year old Steve Reich.
During 1993, Steve Reich and his wife Beryl Korot collaborated on the opera The Cave, which explored the roots of Christianity, Judaism and Islam through the words of Americans, Israelis and Palestinians. Their words were interpreted by Steve Reich’s ensemble who brought his latest work to life.
Following The Cave, Steve Reich and Beryl Korot collaborated on the video opera Three Tales. It explored the Hindenburg disaster, the testing of nuclear weapons on Bikini Atoll and subjects like cloning which brought Three Tales up to date. Steve Reich also used sampling during Three Tales and on City Life which was released in 1994. However, after that, Steve Reich made a conscious decision to return to composing for the concert hall, writing Triple Quartet in 1998 for the Kronos Quartet.
When the new millennia dawned, Steve Reich continued to write instrumental pieces for the concert hall, starting with 2002s Dance Patterns and then the three-piece Cello Counterpoint in 2003. You Are (Variations) followed in 2004 with Variations For Vibes, Pianos, and Strings in 2005. With his seventieth birthday fast approaching, there was no sign of Steve Reich slowing down.
In 2007, Steve Reich was commissioned by American contemporary music sextet Eighth Blackbird to write Double Sextet. This was just the latest in the long line of innovative compositions by Steve Reich who two years later in 2009 won the Pulitzer Prize for Music.
By then, Steve Reich was regarded as one of only a small number of living composers who could claim that they had changed the direction of musical history. Despite doing so, the man who American composer and critic Kyle Gann called: “America’s greatest living composer” remained a modest man who has as a new decade dawned continued to compose and record ambitious, cerebral, innovative and thought-provoking music.
This included WTC 9/11 which was written by Steve Reich and was played by the Kronos Quartet at the premiere at Duke University in North Carolina. Steve Reich hadn’t lost his ability to write innovate, engaging, cerebral and thought-provoking music.
Two years later, on the ‘5th’ of March 2013 the London Sinfonietta, conducted by Brad Lubman premiered Radio Rewrite which was inspired by Radiohead’s music and written for an eleven piece ensemble. The same night, the audience heard Double Sextet and Clapping Music, which Steve Reich wrote for “two people and four hands.” That night, Steve Reich and percussionist Colin Currie provided the “four hands” on what was a captivating evening’s music that celebrated a musical pioneer.
Later in 2013, Steve Reich wrote Quartet a near nineteen minute composition that was co-commissioned and was premiered by the Colin Currie Group at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, at the Southbank Centre in London on October ’12th’ 2014. It would be nearly three years before the Colin Currie Group recorded Quartet.
Two years later, and Steve Reich had been commissioned to write Pulse, which was a fourteen minute piece that was premiered by the International Contemporary Ensemble in the Carnegie Hall in New York on the ‘1st’ of November 2016. The following year it was recorded by the International Contemporary Ensemble and opened Pulse/Quartet.
Pulse is a fourteen minute epic from the pen of Steve Reich that consists of just one lengthy movement where the International Contemporary Ensemble showcase their considerable skills. It opens with what’s best described as a lush melodic phrase as the piano and bass provide a rhythmic pulse to the piece. As is the case with Steve Reich’s compositions, the rhythmic beat repeats and provides a mesmeric backdrop that proves omnipresent as the drama builds and the imagery is rich and vivid. Later, Pulse becomes ruminative and leaving room to reflect and takes on a meditative sound that has been a trademark of Steve Reich’s compositions.
Quartet is a three-part piece consisting of Fast Slow and Fast that Steve Reich regards as one of the most complex pieces he’s ever written. It’s played by the Colin Currie Group whose lineup features vibes players Colin Currie and Phillip Walton plus pianists Phillip Moore and Simon Crawford-Phillips. They play with speed, accuracy and urgency during the two Fast pieces that bookend Quartet. They’re a hive of activity, while a calm descends during Slow and again, this allows time for reflection before the tempo quickens and Fast closes Pulse/Quartet.
For anyone yet to discover Steve Reich’s music, then Pulse/Quartet which was recently issued by Nonesuch, is a perfect introduction to a true musical pioneer, who has spent a lifetime writing, recording and performing innovative music. On Pulse/Quartet, the International Contemporary Ensemble interpret Pulse and then the Colin Currie Group reinterpret Quartet. While the two tracks on Pulse/Quartet last just over thirty-one minutes, this is enough to discover a true innovator and one of the greatest living composers.
Pulse/Quartet is an accessible introduction to Steve Reich that is sure to be the first step on a captivating voyage of discovery through his extensive back-catalogue. This is a journey well worth embarking upon, as it will allow a newcomer to Steve Reich’s music to discover the different periods of his long and illustrious career including Pulse/Quartet.