Four Organs / Phase Patterns
02. Phase Patterns 16:35
A - recorded at Guggenheim Museum, New York
B - recorded at University Museum, Berkeley
Four Organs and Phase Patterns come from a time when minimalist composer Steve Reich was in an obsessively scientific mode. They establish a new language, while arguing for their very right to exist.
Unlike some other famous works by the minimalist pioneer Steve Reich, Four Organs is not the least bit soothing. It doesn’t murmur or churn; it squawks, sort of, digging into your nerves like a hangnail: “Stop, stop, I confess,” someone reportedly wailed at the work’s premiere. A concertgoer rapped her shoe on the stage at the same performance, like Khrushchev at the 1960 United Nations General Assembly. Reich described the scene years later with evident pleasure as a “riot.”
As a result, it acquired a reputation in Steve Reich’s canon. It is unloved, the black-sheep son that will never reap the adulation of Music for 18 Musicians or Different Trains. But the thing is, Reich designed it for discomfort. The whole piece consists of four Farfisa organs, hardly peaceful instruments, leaning on one long dominant eleventh chord. This chord, the dominant eleventh, is a “home” chord with bits and notes of other places lingering in it. It is inherently uneasy, rooted to the spot with one eye over its shoulder. Even if you’ve never looked at a page of written music in your life, you can just feel the tendons pulling in its harmonic makeup. Listening to this piece in headphones, with multiple Farfisas pulling at this one chord like dogs fighting over a sock, I sometimes had to remind myself to unclench my jaw.
This record, reissued by the San Francisco-based label Superior Viaduct, was originally released in 1970 by Shandar, a small French label that made an outsized impact on American musical modernism: in its decade-long existence, the imprint managed to release works by Albert Ayler, La Monte Young, Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra, and many others. Like any good champions of the musical avant-garde, they were eventually punished by fate: in 1979, a flood destroyed most of their original vinyl stock, effectively ending the enterprise.