Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Steve Reich - 1987 - Early Works

Steve Reich
Early Works

01. Come Out 12:54
02. Piano Phase 20:26
03. Clapping Music 4:39
04. It’s Gonna Rain 17:31

These historical recordings were difficult to find (usually on out of print compilations) for a long time, so it's gratifying to have them readily available in one place. The two important tape pieces here from the mid-'60s, "Come Out" and "It's Gonna Rain," have their sound sources originating in police brutality and apocalyptic evangelism. Reich takes his sources and turns them into two short tape loops repeated rapidly as they gradually go out of synch with each other -- what's revealed are the intricacies of the human voice. "Come Out" takes the voice fragment and turns it into a hall-of-mirror set of voices over shuffling beat and wah-wah that are actually a by-product of subtleties of the voice and almost unrecognizable as the original vocal sample. It becomes a scary psychedelic funk piece that Funkadelic or Can would have been proud of. "It's Gonna Rain" is similarly looped and phased as the preacher's admonition is transformed, moving in and out of synch as the piece progresses with the second part of the piece especially full of fierce, terrifying swirls of noise. After taking musique concrete to another level, Reich decided to try to make similar strides with instrumental music. The two other pieces here, "Piano Phase" and "Clapping Music," represent this new direction in his work. Re-recorded here in 1986 and 1987, their intricate, layered patterns should be familiar to fans of another one of Reich's masterpieces, "Music for 18 Musicians." Early Works is a must-have introduction for anyone interested in the roots of minimalist music.

Four pieces from the 1960s and early 1970s by Steve Reich. I first heard about Reich from a TV arts programme when I was a teenager and I remember hearing the clapping music and thinking it was really cool: but now listening to it more than once I find it a bit dull (although I imagine it must be real fun to perform). The other three pieces are the famous examples of phasing: having two tape loops with are slightly out of sync - and then we listen to what happens. And it is extraordinary. On Come Out and It's Gonna Rain we hear short phrases of speech disintegrating. For the first couple of minutes on It's Gonna Rain the phrase seems to collapse then reform, to disappear then return; over the next minutes it slowly metamorphizes into pure rhythm - but at what point it stops being speech and transforms into abstract sound it is impossible to say, I presume we still hear the words even after they have disappeared into the seemingly electronic noise; and then, after seven minutes, the phrase returns. The piece continues with another phrase that again collapses, but the word hallelujah calls out as though a preacher has fallen into the cogs of an electronic machine and is calling out to his maker. Come Out is again the same, but again very different: the repetitions are like waves lapping onto the shore, they are constant, following the same pattern, but each wave is slightly different as the sea advances; by seven minutes the phrase has disintegrated into an abstract noise, by nine it has become a strange wobbling noise, a bit like a drunken robot singing to itself. All this is fascinating, but is it music? If music is interesting noise then yes it is, but if you expect music to be pleasant or, well, musical, then it is limited. If music is an emotional language then it doesn't say much - other than inducing fascination and irritation (although I listened to the album last night while doing the ironing and it did work as surprisingly good ironing sound). The longest track, Piano Phase, is more obviously musical. I would guess (and this would be easy enough to look up but I am being too lazy) that originally it was played by one piano and then looped on a tape recorder: here it is played by Nurit Tilles and Edmund Niemann: I presume they play the whole thing (which must be very difficult) but perhaps it is looped. Although this is more like a piece of music in the normal sense, it is in some ways less interesting, just because it is more normal: but again there is the sense of the sea lapping, lapping, lapping... The album is fascinating for anyone interested in Steve Reich or for anyone intrigued by strange noises, but I have to admit I don't listen to it much.