Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Steve Reich - 2005 - Live 1977

Steve Reich 
Live 1977

01. Six Pianos (1973) 18:10
02. Pendulum Music (1968) 5:58
03. Violin Phase (1967) 18:16
04. Music For Pieces Of Wood (1973) 10:45
05. Drumming - Part Four (1971) 9:02

Steve Reich
Bob Becker
Steve Chambers
Russell Hartenberger
James Preiss
Glen Velez

Heralded by the Village Voice recently as "America's greatest living composer" and considered "the most original musical thinker of our time" by The New Yorker, Steve Reich has produced a sound as distinct and singular as any in modern music over the last thirty years.

This CD features highlights from a four-night series of performances by Steve Reich and Musicians, presented at New York's legendary experimental arts venue, The Kitchen, in May 1977.

These live recordings are classic representations of Reich's early musical style and reflect his use of repeated patterns and, in the seminal work of 1967, Violin Phase, as well as in Part Four of Drumming and Pendulum Music, his original 'phasing' technique.

The disc opens with one of Reich's most famous pieces, Six Pianos, which produces a wonderfully complicated texture of overlapping notes as the six pianists play out of phase, and it also includes Music for Pieces of Wood, performed on tuned claves.

The CD includes some surprises. For instance, Violin Phase - very unusually - used three pre-recorded violin lines while Shem Guibbory performed the fourth live. And Pendulum Music is also very distinct from studio recordings because the acoustics of the Kitchen's space gave the swinging microphones a very different resonating feedback as they passed over the speakers.

'Steve Reich And Musicians, Live 1977' is the second in an ongoing series of releases comprising material culled from The Kitchen's extensive archive of its own performance history.

Steve Reich / Kronos Quartet / Pat Metheny - 1989 - Different Trains / Electric Counterpoint

Steve Reich - Kronos Quartet / Pat Metheny 
Different Trains / Electric Counterpoint

Different Trains
01. Kronos Quartet America – Before The War 8:59
02. Kronos Quartet Europe – During The War 7:31
03. Kronos Quartet After The War 10:20
Electric Counterpoint
04. Pat Metheny Fast 6:51
05. Pat Metheny Slow 3:21
06. Pat Metheny Fast 4:29

Viola [Kronos Quartet] – Hank Dutt (tracks: 1 to 3)
Violin [Kronos Quartet] – David Harrington (tracks: 1 to 3)
Violin [Kronos Quartet] – John Sherba (tracks: 1 to 3)
Cello [Kronos Quartet] – Joan Jeanrenaud (tracks: 1 to 3)
Guitar – Pat Metheny (tracks: 4 to 6)

"Different trains" recorded August 31 - September 9, 1988 at Russian Hill Recording, San Francisco.
"Electric counterpoint" recorded September 26 - October 1, 1987 at Power Station, New York City.

Different Trains (1988) will probably go down in history as Reich's masterpiece. And deservedly so. Reich's phase-shifting minimalism is made dazzlingly entertaining in Different Trains, which is scored for string quartet and digitally sampled voices that repeat bits of speech concerning trains and Reich's experience with them growing up. The sinister part here is than some trains carried Jews to death camps. That's here as well. The Kronos Quartet has also never sounded better. Electric Counterpoint (1987) has one guitar--Pat Metheny in this case-- playing to 10 pre-recorded motifs, also on guitar. You absolutely need this. --Paul Cook

"DIFFERENT TRAINS" (1988) is one of the better known works by Steve Reich (1936 - ), an American composer who helped develop minimalism in music, during the mid to late 1960s - along with La Monte Young (1935 -); Terry Riley (1935 - ); Philip Glass (1937 - ); later John Adams (1947 - ) - better known for his choral work titled "On the Transmigration of Souls" (2002), commemorating the victims of the September 11 2001 attacks on the Twin Towers, and also for the opera "Nixon in China".

[Incidentally, has anyone noticed that many minimalist composers have very short names?]

Some of Reich's other compositions - besides "Electric Counterpoint" (1987), also in the CD - are: It's Gonna Rain (1965); Come Out (1966 ); Music for 18 Musicians (1974-1976); Triple Quartet (1998); Double Sextet (2007); Mallet Quartet (2009); and WTC 9/11 (2010).

DIFFERENT TRAINS (1988, approximately 26 minutes long). Recorded in the CD is the original interpretation of the work by the Kronos Quartet, an American group based in San Francisco. The same interpretation: (1) won a Grammy Award in 1989 for Best Contemporary Classical Composition; and (2) was selected as the finest among a number of recordings of the same work in the June 2014 issue of the BBC Music Magazine, "Building a Library" chapter.
Different Trains is a three-movement composition for string quartet and tape, which Reich conceived, based on his experiences as a young child (between 1939 and 1942), when he frequently rode trains from New York City to Los Angeles and back, in order to spend time with both his parents who were separated. Once an adult, he realized that - as a Jew - had he been living in Europe during those same years, his train journeys would not have been as enjoyable and full of exciting discoveries, as had been those from New York City to Los Angeles and back.
He visualized three different trains, each traveling before, during and after the Great War, in North America and in Europe. He described those trains in a musical composition by interlocking together train noises, as produced by the string quartet, with human voices from prerecorded tapes. The three movements are titled:
- America - Before the War (lasting approximately 9 minutes). This is a happy movement with a regular fast rhythm and a music which successfully replicate the noise of the moving train, complete with whistle, and other special train sounds. The voices on the tape - by Reich's governess Virginia, and by the Pullman porter - repeat the words "from New York to Los Angeles" and "from Chicago to New York", with occasional other train related commentaries, such as "one of the fastest trains", and "different trains every time". The movement leaves the listener with a positive contented feeling.
- Europe - During the War (lasting approximately 7 minutes). The mood changes dramatically, once we leave happy carefree America for Europe in the middle of World War II. The cheerful train sounds are gone, as we witness the development of a journey whose final destination is hell. We still hear the sounds describing the moving train, as well as the voices on the tape (provided here by holocaust survivors), making comments regarding the war and some of their personal experiences. But it is no longer a positively charged music. It is the music describing a train taking its passengers to the concentration camps. The atmosphere is somber, and becomes increasingly so, as we approach the end of the journey. As the train pulls into the station, the voice on the tape says: "Flames going up in the sky - It is smoking.......". At the same time the music becomes strident in a manner that evokes the climactic emotions associated with such sight. The movement ends. The listener is left with a sense of anguish and despair comparable to the one that the train passengers must have experienced back in the early 1940`s.
- After the War (Europe and America, lasting approximately 10 minutes). The despair and other strong emotions experienced by the passengers on the train during the war are gone, but the music is no longer the happy carefree one of the first movement. It is very sad. So is the listener by the end of the work.

- ELECTRIC COUNTERPOINT (1987, approximately 15 minutes long). The second composition in the CD, Electric Counterpoint, is also a minimalist work in three movements. The movements are described as fast, slow fast and are played without interruptions. The work is interpreted by American jazz composer and guitarist Pat Metheny (1954 - ), who prerecorded on tape the sound of ten guitars and two bass parts, then played the 11th guitar live against the sounds on the same tape.
Eleven Guitars. How about that for counterpoint!!!!
Although technically innovative, the piece is not as captivating as the previous one, at least not on an emotional level. The rhythm/melody are somewhat comparable to the ones of Different Trains, but without the whistle and other train sounds. They remain relatively unchanged during the three movements.
The music of this second piece may not stir the same emotions that Different Trains does. But then again, a masterpiece such as Different Trains is not produced every day.

Minimalism as a chugging train, with Kronos Quartet playing in staccato rhythm alongside, and train whistles blowing as either sirens of nostalgia, or as sirens of horror.  Its melodies occur as spurts derived from spoken word, musically translated and matched by the strings.  The concept is Steve Reich remembering his privileged upbringing riding trains across the USA during World War II, knowing now that, since he's a Jew, if he were in Europe at the time a train ride would have been quite different.  The spoken narration is recorded oral history put into an artistic context that goes for the jugular.

The first movement is "America - Before the War", using simple benign phrases ("one of the fastest trains"; "1941 it must have been") uttered by Reich's governess and a retired Pullman porter.  Establishes a sepia past that, even in its safety, is aware of its placement in an anxious world.  The second movement is "Europe - During the War", with a sudden shift to darker tones and phrases of terror recalled by Holocaust survivors ("and he said, 'Don't Breathe!'"; "into those cattle wagons!"; "Flames going up to the sky - it was smoking").  The final movement is "After the War", an uneasy awakening from a nightmare ("and the war was over"; "are you sure?").  A feeling more of relief, reflection and mourning than of celebration.  Moving onward ... "going to America"; "one of the fastest trains"; "but today they're all gone".

It has a heavy mood that never fails to move me, strongly, emotionally.  How many avant-garde classical pieces can you say that about?  The melodicism derived from bits of spoken word is a powerful technique.  A truly groundbreaking piece.  Sadly, Reich knows this and keeps trying to repeat the concept - but don't be fooled by imitations. Different Trains is potent.

The second piece is Reich's classic patterned style as interpreted for overdubs of electric guitar performed by Pat Metheny.  It has a peaceful New Agey charm that allows plenty of room for you to contemplate the clever counterpoint.  Reminds you that *whew* good thing we live in more privileged times (for now).

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.

Steve Reich - 1987 - Drumming

Steve Reich 

01. Part I 17:30
02. Part II 18:12
03. Part III 11:13
04. Part IV 9:47

Drums [Tuned], Marimba, Glockenspiel – Bob Harms, Gary Kvistad, Gary Schall, Glen Velez, James Preiss, Russ Hartenberger, Steve Reich, Thad Wheeler
Piccolo Flute – Mort Silver
Voice – Jay Clayton, Pamela Wood Ambush

Recorded May 1987 at RCA Studio A, New York City.

Composer's Notes
For one year, between the fall of 1970 and the fall of 1971, I worked on what turned out to be the longest piece I have ever composed. Drumming lasts from 55 to 75 minutes (depending on the number of repeats played) and is divided into four parts that are performed without pause. The first part is for four parts that are performed without pause. The first part is for four pairs of tuned bongo drums, stand-mounted and played with sticks; the second, for three marimbas played by nine players together with two women’s voices; the third, or three glockenspiels played by four players together with whistling and piccolo; and the fourth section is for all these instruments and voices combined.

While first player the drums during the process of composition, I found myself sometimes singing with them, using my voice to imitate the sounds they made. I began to understand that this might also be possible with the marimbas and glockenspiels as well. Thus the basic assumption about the voices in Drumming was that they would not sing words, but would precisely imitate the sound of the instruments. The women’s voices sing patterns resulting from the combination of two or more marimbas playing the identical repeating pattern one of more quarter notes out of phase with each other. By exactly imitating the sound of the instruments, and by gradually fading the patterns in and out, the singers cause them to slowly rise to the surface of the music and then fade back into it, allowing the listener to hear these patterns, along with many others, actually sounding in the instruments. For the marimbas, the female voice was needed, using consonants like "b" and "d" with a more or less "u" (as in "you") vowel sound. In the case of the glockenspiels, the extremely high range of the instrument precluded any use of the voice and necessitated whistling. Even this form of vocal production proved impossible when the instrument was played in its higher ranges, and this created the need for a more sophisticated form of whistle: the piccolo. In the last section of the piece these techniques are combined simultaneously with each imitating its particular instrument.

The sections are joined together by the new instruments doubling the exact pattern of the instruments already playing. At the end of the drum section three drummers play the same pattern two quarter notes out of phase with each other. Three marimba players enter softly with the same pattern also played two quarter notes out of phase. The drummers gradually fade out so that the same rhythm and pitches are maintained with a gradual change of timbre. At the end of the marimba section, three marimbas played in their highest range are doubled by three glockenspiels in their lowest range so that the process of maintaining rhythm and pitch while gradually changing timbre is repeated. The sections are not set off from each other by changes in key, the traditional means of gaining extended length in Western music. Drumming shows that it is possible to keep going in the same key for quite a while if there are instead considerable rhythmic developments together with occasional, but complete, changes of timbre to supply variety.

I am often asked what influence my visit of Africa in summer of 1970 had on Drumming. The answer is confirmation. It confirmed my intuition that acoustic instruments could be used to produce music that was genuinely richer in sound than that produced with electronic instruments, as well as confirming my natural inclination towards percussion (I became a drummer at the age of 14).

The transition from glockenspiels to the last section of the piece, for all instruments and voices combined, is made by a new musical process I call build-up and reduction. Drumming begins with two drummers building up the basic rhythmic pattern of the entire piece from a single drum beat, played in a cycle of twelve beats with rests on all the other beats. Gradually additional drumbeats are substituted for the rests, one at a time, until the pattern is completed. The reduction process is simply the reverse where rests are gradually substituted for the beats, one at a time, until only a section leads to a build-up for the drums, marimbas, and glockenspiels simultaneously.

There is, then, only one basic rhythmic pattern for all of Drumming. This pattern undergoes changes of phase position, pitch, and timbre, but all the performers play this pattern, or some part of it, throughout the entire piece.

— Steve Reich

Reich made the pioneering recording of "Drumming" back in 1974, for DG: not only did he supervise the recording, he also played the marimba in Parts II and IV, and whistled in Part III. One of the drawbacks of that recording was that it lasted circa 85 minutes - Drumming, completed in 1971, was back then and remains the longest piece ever composed by Reich: instead of being played continuously (as it was conceived), each part had to be broken down to one LP side, and even when it was reissued on CD (in 1989) on DG's 20th-Century collection (Reich: Drumming; Six Pianos; Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ, later reissued in the 20/21 collection, still on two CDs but with no complement, Drumming), Part IV was rejected on CD II. In the latter case, the damage wasn't so bad, since Part III in fact tapers off to a single repeated note on the glockenspiel, then picked up by other instruments in Part IV, but still, DG's decision to fade out then fade back in wasn't the most clever one: it might have been better to simply cut off on the last glockenspiel note and start with the next one.

So the interest of this 1987 recording on Elektra/Nonesuch, whose duration is 56:40 minutes, is to enable you to hear the piece continuous. There is a certain degree of freedom afforded to the performers in playing "Drumming", based on how many repeats are made. Funny that, in the liner notes to this Elektra/Nonesuch release, Reich should comment that "Drumming lasts from 55 to 75 minutes". Hey man, haven't you counted how long your own 1974 recording lasted???? At 75-minutes, it would have fitted on a single CD no problem, and there would have been no need for this remake.

Another nice feature of the re-recording is that it involves many of the original performers. But after all, it was hardly more than a decade later. Stupidly, the booklet's credits list them in alphabetical order, so you don't know who's playing what. In Drumming, Reich (to quote his own presentation in the booklet of the DG release) brought to the "final refinement [his] phrasing technique in which two or three identical instruments playing the same repeating melodic pattern gradually move out of synchronization with each other, but the work also introduce[d] several new techniques: (1) gradual changes of timbre while pitch and rhythm remain constant, (2) the use of the human voice in an instrumental ensemble imitating the exact sound of the instruments, (3) the process of gradually substituting beats for rests (or rests for beats) within a constantly repeating rhythmic cycle". So Drumming is made of four parts, the first scored for four pairs of tuned bongo drums, the second for three marimbas and two soprano voices, the third for three glockenspiels, whistling and piccolo flute, the fourth combining all these instrumental groups. Each part develops the same melodic patterns, and at the beginning of each next section the new instruments enter doubling exactly the pattern of the instruments already playing, and these then taper off. So, here, all you are told is that Reich whistles, Mort Silver plays the piccolo and Pamela Wood Ambush and Jay Clayton (the latter was already part of the 1974 recording) sing. But from the members of the 1974 recording, you can make the educated inference that Russ Hartenberger and Bob Becker play the bongos and that Glen Velez, Bob Becker, Russ Hartenberger and James Preiss play the glockenspiels (they all did so in 1974). Among the nine performers who played the marimbas in 1974, five are still there in 1987: Reich, Hartenberger, Becker, Ben Harms and Glen Velez, and three new names appear whom I'll suppose play the marimbas as well: Gary Kvistad, Gary Schall and Thad Wheeler. Who's the 9th performer and whether there is a 9th performer, maybe we'll never know.

So, it all seems nice and well, but there is also a drawback to doing a "short" version: it doesn't always have time to unfold. Just one telling illustration. The piece starts with one bongo playing a single pitch in a regular beat, soon joined by a second playing the same pitch, and then followed by a second pitch. In 1974 second bongo entered after 13 seconds and second pitch at 0:23. In 1987 the second bongo enters, if my ears don't betrray me (it is almost indetectable) at 0:05, and the second pitch at 0:08. No wonder then that the new recording should be about as short as, according to Reich himself, the piece can be. Just compare section by section (the side breaks aren't exactly the same; add 30 seconds to tracks 1 & 2 of the 1987 recording (and substract as much from track 3) to make things comparable).

Part (1974) 24:35 (1987) 17:31
Part II (1974) 25:19 (1987) 18:11
Part III (1974) 15:40 (1987) 11:11
Part IV (1974) 18:57 (1987) 9:50

This may be not so much a drawback as an advantage for some people, likely to find the 85 minutes of repetition of the 1974 recording a little too much to swallow. I do find the 24+ minutes of Part I somewhat too long and repetitive, because it involves the relatively bland colors of the skin-struck bongos. But I am not sure that the shorter version will sound less bland and boring to those inclined to find it bland and boring, because what is lost even in that movement is the slow building of the patterns, the ritualistic aspect of the music (Reich acknowledge the influence on the composition of his voyage to Africa in 1970). What's left, in the two outer parts, is only the energetic and tension-filled sense of rhythm, and, in Part IV, of an inexorable crescendo and rise in tension. Part IV is more hypnotic in 1974. Despite the significant timing discrepancy I didn't find that the difference was as perceptible in Parts II and III. What is immediately perceptible though is that it is more dynamically and propulsively played in 1987, which accounts at least for some of the timing difference. No judgment here: the sweeter and more dreamy approach of 1974 also as its value. I like both in fact. Still, Part III, with its tinkling bells, is so exquisitely fairy-tale like, I am happy with the 4 additional minutes I get in 1971.

Is there at least a significant sonic improvement that would make the 1987 preferable, if only on that ground? Not really. If anything, there is slightly more vividness in the earlier recording of the bongos. The 1987 sonic perspective is slightly more distant and airy. Strangely, it is the opposite in the other tracks, but there differences are marginal.

Steve Reich - 1986 - Sextet /Six Marimbas

Steve Reich 
Sextet /Six Marimbas

01. Sextet 1st Movement 10:29
02. Sextet 2nd Movement 4:12
03. Sextet 3rd Movement 2:28
04. Sextet 4th Movement 3:15
05. Sextet 5th Movement 5:48
06. Six Marimbas 16:19

Recorded May 1986 at RCA Studios, NYC.

Bob Becker
Russ Hartenberger
Kory Grossman
James Preiss
Bill Ruyle
William Trigg

Although Reich's music during the '80s, as he gained in popularity, was increasingly written for larger, lusher ensembles (with, oftentimes, the concomitant loss of "edge"), he occasionally and happily reverted to more contained compositions such as those included here. "Sextet" is pared down to four percussionists and two keyboardists (the latter including synthesizers) and evokes early pieces of Reich's Drumming while incorporating his ongoing use of longer melodic lines. In five sections, it tends toward a buoyant and jazzy bubbliness, percolating with all manner of busy interaction and wonderfully intermeshed rhythms. One of the new techniques employed is having the vibraphonists bow their instruments, generating long, ghostly tones reminiscent of musical saws but cleaner and more precise. Since this cannot be done quickly, Reich writes patterns that interweave between performers, achieving a kind of hocketing effect where, by playing only every third or fourth note in a rhythmic line, the ensemble can produce what the listener perceives as a fast tempo even as each individual is playing slowly. The closing section is pure effervescent bliss. "Six Marimbas," scored for, unsurprisingly, six marimbas, sounds even closer to the pieces that originally brought Reich to renown and is, in fact, a rescoring of his "Six Pianos" from 1973. The pure, luscious tones of the marimbas make it even more successful than the original and the work is played with obvious delight and rigor by the percussion ensemble Nexus, who includes several members of Reich's working band of the early '70s. In sum, Sextet/Six Marimbas is one of the finest releases of mid-career Reich, entirely without the pretensions that marred some of his other work from the period, and is highly recommended.

Steve Reich - 1985 - The Desert Music

Steve Reich
The Desert Music

01. The Desert Music First Movement (Fast) 7:54
02. The Desert Music Second Movement (Moderate) 6:59
03. The Desert Music Third Movement Part One (Slow) 6:59
04. The Desert Music Third Movement Part Two (Moderate) 5:54
05. The Desert Music Third Movement Part Three (Slow) 5:55
06. The Desert Music Fourth Movement (Moderate) 3:35
07. The Desert Music Fifth Movement (Fast) 10:46

Soprano Vocals – Cheryl Bensman
Bass – Donald Palma
Cello – Sharon Prater
Viola – Francesca Martin
Violin [Concertmistress] – Julie Rosenfeld
Violin [Second] – Deborah Redding
Percussion – Robert Becker
Percussion – Garry Kvistad
Percussion – Glen Velez
Percussion – Russell Hartenberger

This album is a setting of poetry by William Carlos Williams.

Composer's Notes
The Desert Music was begun September 1982 and completed in December 1983. It was commissioned by The West German Radio, Cologne and The Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York. It is a setting of parts of poems by the American poet William Carlos Williams. The duration is 46 minutes.

The title is taken from Dr. Williams’ book of collected poems, The Desert Music. From this collection I chose parts of The Orchestra and Theocritus: Idyl I – A version from the Greek. From another collection I chose a small part of Asphodel, That Greeny Flower. There are no complete poems used and the arrangement of parts is my own. This arrangement was my first compositional activity and the form of the piece into a large arch follows the text, presented below:

I – fast

"Begin, my friend
                 for you cannot,
                                  you may be sure,
take your song,
                 which drives all things out of mind,
                                  with you to the other world."
                                                                    from: Theocritus: Idyl I – A version from the Greek

II – moderate

                                  "Well, shall we
think or listen? Is there a sound addressed
                 not wholly to the ear?
                                  We half close
our eyes. We do not
                 hear it through our eyes.
                                  It is not
a flute note either, it is the relation
                 of a flute note
                                  to a drum. I am wide
awake. The mind
                 is listening."
                                                                    from: The Orchestra

III A – slow

"Say to them:
Man has survived hitherto because he was too ignorant to know how to realize his wishes. Not that he can realize them, he must either change them or perish."
                                                                    from: The Orchestra

III B – moderate

                                  "it is a principle of music
to repeat the theme. Repeat
                 and repeat again,
                                  as the pace mounts. The
theme is difficult
                 but no more difficult
                                  than the facts to be
                                                                    from: The Orchestra

III C – slow

"Say to them:
Man has survived hitherto because he was too ignorant to know how to realize his wishes. Not that he can realize them, he must either change them or perish."
                                                                    from: The Orchestra

IV – moderate

                                  "Well, shall we
think or listen? Is there a sound addressed
                 not wholly to the ear
                                  We half close
our eyes. We do not
                 hear it through our eyes.
                                  It is not
a flute not either, it is the relation
                 of a flute note
                                  to a drum. I am wide
awake. The mind
                 is listening."
                                                                    from: The Orchestra

V – fast

"Inseperable from the fire
                 its light
                                  takes precedence over it.
Who most shall advance the light –
                 call it what you may!"
                                                                    from: Asphodel, That Greeny Flower

Excerpts from: Theocrats: Idyl I, The Orchestra, and Asphodel, That Greeny Flower from Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems by William Carlos Williams (Copyright 1954, 1955, 1962 by William Carlos Williams); used by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

As indicated above, there are five movements forming a large arch, A-B-C-B-A. The first and fifth movements are fast and use the same harmonic cycle. The second and fourth are at a moderate tempo, share the identical text ("Well, shall we/ think or listen?…") and also share a common harmonic cycle which is different than the one used in the first and fifth movements. The third, middle, movement is the longest (17 minutes) and is itself an arch form A-B-A where the A sections are slow and the B section moves up to the moderate tempo of the second and fourth movements. The third movement has its own harmonic cycle. There are no pauses between movements and the piece is played attacca from beginning to end. The changes of tempo between movements are made suddenly by metric modulation always using the 3:2 relationship to either get slower (dotted quarter equals quarter) or faster (eighth note triplet equals eighth note.)

Following the arrangement of the text, three cycles of harmonies were composed to serve as the basis for the individual movements. I chose to present these cycles as a series of pulsing chord, a similar in rhythm to the pulses in my earlier Music for 18 Musicians, but more chromatic and ‘darker’ in harmony than the earlier piece, to suit the text of The Desert Music. The harmonic cycle of the first and fifth movements cadences, though with some ambiguity, on a D dorian minor center. This ambiguity resides in the fact that a prominent A altered dominant chord follows the D, but an F altered dominant proceeds it. The cycle of the second and fourth movements does not clearly cadence on any center, though it too contains a prominent altered A dominant chord. The cycle for the large third movement is the most ambiguous of all since all the chords are altered dominants with their root moving in major and minor thirds making a cadence impossible. Thus the overall harmonic movement of The Desert Music is from the possibility of a D dorian minor center to more and more ambiguity, until in the third movement, where the text would seem to suggest it, there is no clear harmonic center at all. This ambiguity more or less remains until well into the fifth movement when, just before the chorus enters, there is a large orchestral cadence – albeit coming from that F altered dominant. This chord is then used to move from one movement to the other at each change of tempo. The piece ends with the women’s voices, violins and mallet instruments pulsing the notes (reading up) G, C, F, A which are the common tones to both the A altered dominant and the D dorian minor. The piece therefore ends with a certain harmonic ambiguity, partially, but not fully, resolved.

In the orchestration of The Desert Music I wanted to use all the orchestral instruments to play the repeating interlocking melodic patterns found in much of my earlier music. The strings begin this kind of poly-rhythmic interlocking shortly after the opening pulses of the first movement just before the chorus enters singing, "Begin, my friend…" To give the strings the extra ‘snap’ needed in this kind of rhythmic interplay they are doubled by the woodwinds. The chorus, throughout the piece, is doubled for support either by the woodwinds or by the muted brass. This of course, is an old technique, but one that here helps create that mixture of vocal and instrumental sound I have been working with since my composition Drumming in 1971. To further enhance this mix of vocal-instrumental sound, both the chorus and woodwinds are amplified and mixed together. The percussion is emni-present, usually playing mallet instruments to supply the on-going pulses. Here and there one will also hear maracas, clicking sticks, bass drums, timpani and large tam-tam.

The pulse which begins and ends The Desert Music and recurs throughout it is significant both musically and as a kind of wordless response to and commentary on the text itself. Musically it presents the harmonic cycles of the movements as a kind of pulsing chorale. The pulse is also developed in the second and fourth movements from a simple eighth note pulsing in all voices and instruments to interlocking groups of two and three beats each forming overall polyrhythmic pulses. This grows out of the two and three beat groupings found in my Tehillim (1981). In terms of the text, the vocalise syllables are a kind of wordless response to, "Well, shall we/ think or listen?…" in the second and fourth movements. That constant flickering of attention between what words mean and how they sound when set to music is one main focus of The Desert Music.

As to the meaning of the text and music I hope that it speaks for itself. I have loved Dr. Williams’ poetry since I was 16 years old and picked up a copy of his long poem Patterson just because I was fascinated by the symmetry of his name – William Carlos Williams. I have continued reading his work to the present. I find Dr. Williams’ finest work to be his late poetry written between 1954 and his death in 1963 at age 80. It is from this period in the poet’s work that I have selected the texts for The Desert Music – a period after the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Dr. Williams was acutely aware of the bomb and his words about it, in a poem about music entitled The Orchestra struck me as to the point: "Say to them:/ Man has survived hitherto because he was too ignorant/ to know how to realize his wishes. Now that he can realize/ them, he must either change them or perish." When I began work on The Desert Music I thought those words were too grave to set and thought I would use a tape of Dr. Williams reading them instead. When the time came to compose the third movement in the summer of 1983 I did know how to set them because the character of the harmonies in the third seemed to generate just the right setting. I was very glad now I did not resort to using a tape. In the center of the piece is the text, also from The Orchestra, which says, "it is a principle of music/ to repeat the theme. Repeat/ and repeat again,/ as the pace mounts. The/ theme is difficult/ but no more difficult/ than the facts to be/ resolved." Those at all familiar with my music will know how apt those words are for me and particularly this piece which, among other things, addresses that basic ambiguity between what the text says, and its pure sensuous sounds.

Steve Reich

This hour-long work, commissioned by West German Radio and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, marks a transitional period for Reich. Based in the rhythmic pulse of Music for 18 Musicians, he adds a text by William Carlos Williams (sung by a full chorus), uses the more traditional sounds of a full orchestra (strings and brass are suddenly prominent), and snatches of melody dot the musical canvas here and there. The use of vocals here looks forward to such projects as Different Trains and The Cave. If Reich is trying to encapsulate the grandeur of the American west without falling back on typical "Western" tropes, he does so successfully.

Steve Reich / John Adams - 1984 - Variations For Winds, Strings And Keyboards / Shaker Loops

Steve Reich / John Adams 
Variations For Winds, Strings And Keyboards / Shaker Loops

01. Steve Reich Variations For Winds, Strings And Keyboards 21:38
02. John Adams Shaker Loops 26:14

Conductor – Edo De Waart
Orchestra – The San Francisco Symphony Orchestra
Recorded at Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, October 1983.

During his tenure with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, conductor Edo de Waart supported the career of American minimalist composers, and this Philips disc (originally released on vinyl in the mid-1980s) gives us pieces by two of them.

In the 1970s Steve Reich reached the summit of his minimalist explorations with "Music for 18 Musicians". However, the next decade proved to be something of lost years for the composer. With his new popularity, he began receiving commissions for orchestral works, and "Variations for Winds, Strings and Keyboards" (1979) is one of these. The work proceeds as a chaconne. The keyboard instruments (two pianos and three electric organs) provide the foundation of the piece, performing throughout. On top of this basis the strings double the harmony of the organs, while flutes and oboes double more active keyboard music. The brass play an independent part, shimmering in and out in the first and third sections.

Reich's "Variations" are not bad, but anyone who has followed his career chronologically may feel that he is repeating himself to diminishing effect: there's nothing new here after "Music for 18 Musicians" and "Octet". Furthermore, even the composer was happy with the result. Of this piece specifically he has said, "I am not very fond of that piece; it's not something I have a great deal of affection for." And in general, Reich has expressed discontent with the overly fat scoring that orchestral commissions bring, preferring to work with smaller ensembles like his own band Steve Reich and Musicians.

While he has comfortably settled into the role of grand old man of American classical music for the establishment with his fairly conventional neo-Romantic works, John Adams began his career as a minimalist. Unlike the motoric, process-driven approach of Reich, however, Adams wanted his repetitive structures to overflow out of their constraints. "Shaker Loops" for string orchestra (1978/1983) has proven to be one of Adams' most-loved pieces, but I don't really get the appeal. It's gentle and unthreatening music, but over three decades since its composition, it now sounds like a forgettable film score.

The Reich 'Variations for Winds, Strings, and Keyboards' from 1980 remains for this listener one of the more beautiful compositions Reich has created. It is lush harmonically and is the quintessential minimalist 'sound' - that of a pulsating, subtly changing ground of strings that supports the over statements by the keyboards and winds. It is nearly erotic in mood and De Waart knows exactly how to make it work.

John Adams 'Shaker Loops' was originally conceived as a string septet in 1977 and then adapted for string orchestra in 1982-83. The title refers to the spiritual reaction of the Shakers, a religious sect who fall into rapture and ecstatic shaking when the spirit enters their body. Adams does not mock this concept but rather honors it. The endlessly fascinating pulsations of the strings give way now and then to moments of contemplation. Again, as with the Reich piece, few listeners will be able to withhold emotional response to this very beautiful composition. Highly recommended

If you are mainly interested in Reich and not Adams, it's worth noting that this recording of "Variations for Winds, Strings and Keyboards" has been reissued with other Reich pieces.

Reich describes the piece as being in the form of a chaconne, variations on a repeated short harmonic progression. The piece has three variations of a complete cycle of harmonic progressions (C minor to C flat, and then gradually back through several keys to C minor), moving one note of a chord at a time, a process of suspension.

The three movements are approximately six, ten, and nine minutes. The winds and keyboards (three oboes doubled by electric organs, alternating with three flutes doubled by pianos and electric organs) play the melody throughout. Harmonies are played by the strings doubled by organs. The brass add to the harmonies in the first and last sections of the piece.

The chord form for the piece was taken from the opening of the second movement of Béla Bartók's Second Piano Concerto. Reich initially wrote the first movement for only strings, with a significant amount of dissonance. He discarded that effort but kept the basic idea of suspensions, inverting the chords within a middle register to reduce the dissonance.

John Adams / Steve Reich - 1984 - Grand Pianola Music / Eight Lines / Vermont Counterpoint

John Adams / Steve Reich 
Grand Pianola Music / Eight Lines / Vermont Counterpoint

01. Grand Pianola Music 31:58
02. Vermont Counterpoint 8:44
03. Eight Lines 18:08

Ransom Wilson: Conductor & Flute

Recorded digitally:
Grand Pianola Music & Eight Lines in the Lehman College Center for the Performing Arts, 1984
Vermont Counterpoint in the Smothers Theatre, Pepperdine University, Malibu, California, 1982

Since minimalism is well-established as a major movement of the late twentieth century and widely practiced today, it may be surprising to find that John Adams' Grand Pianola (1982) ever provoked controversy. Yet its premiere riled the academic and avant-garde establishment, perhaps less for its explicit adoption of repetitive and additive patterns, which had been heard since the 1960s, but more for its extreme exploitation of pianistic clichés and relentless fixation on major scales and triads. Adams' music is deliberately and undeniably bombastic; but the shock value has decreased because Grand Pianola is no longer a novelty, and this recording's rather shallow reproduction captures little of the piece's rude, confrontational quality. Steve Reich's Vermont Counterpoint for piccolo, flutes, and tape (1982) and Eight Lines (1983, arranged from the 1979 Octet) are more successful works and easier to like for their textural consistency and richer elaborations of simple patterns; yet, though they resemble Reich's Music for 18 Musicians in many ways, neither rises to the beauty of that minimalist classic. Ransom Wilson's performances with the Solisti New York are enjoyable for their vigor and energy, but the mid-'80s digital sound quality is a little harsh and cold.

Steve Reich - 1981 - Tehillim

Steve Reich 

01. Parts I & II 17:25
02. Parts III & IV 12:27

Recorded October 1981 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg

Pamela Wood: voice
Cheryl Bensman: voice
Rebecca Armstrong: voice
Jay Clayton: voice
Bob Becker: percussion
Russ Hartenberger: percussion
Garry Kvistad: percussion
Steve Reich: percussion
Gary Schall: percussion
Glen Velez: percussion
Virgil Blackwell: clarinet, flute
Mort Silver: clarinet, piccolo
Vivian Burdick: oboe
Ellen Bardekoff: English horn
Edmund Niemann: electric organ
Nurit Tilles: electric organ
Shem Guibbory: violin
Robert Chausow: violin
Ruth Siegler: viola
Chris Finckel: cello
Lewis Paer: bass
George Manahan: conductor

Human languages are contrived, insofar as they have undergone extensive sociopolitical reshaping. In Steve Reich’s Tehillim, however, words take on a self-sustaining feel, deeply rooted as they are in the nutrient-rich soil of the composer’s instrumental configuration, and serve to dictate the rhythmic and dynamic flow of a seminal shift in American “minimalism.” Being the first document of this new path in Reich’s personal and professional development, this recording matches an endearing trepidation to every practiced gesture. The music therein, says Reich, may be “heard as traditional and new at the same time,” as it was both a way for him to explore his Jewish roots while weaving a fresh brand of secularism into the many liturgical threads at his feet. At just under 30 minutes, Tehillim is but a fleeting unraveling of that very fabric.

Tehillim, meaning “praises” and referring to the Hebrew Book of Psalms from which it borrows its texts, is more than a remarkable work. It is also a work of remarks. The scoring is deceptively simple, built around a core of drum and clapping before introducing a female voice doubled by clarinet. This opens into a series of four-part canons against a backdrop of electric organs and maraca. Each melodic line—human and instrumental alike—moves distinctly, unaffected by the trappings of vibrato or other flourishes, as an imitative counterpoint works its way into the smoke of this short-burning votive candle. Part II carries the women’s voices into higher elevations in which the passage of time is marked by a light interplay of drums. Part III is the slowest of the four, ebbing and flowing with a breath’s involuntary precision. Like the most engaging of Gavin Bryars’s ensemble pieces, this section pulses with the quiet splendor of a deep-sea organism. The final part opens our eyes again to sunlight. With the barest assortment of auditory keys, it unlocks just enough doors to usher us into a more personal understanding of exultation. It can be no coincidence, then, that the derivation of the title—Hey, Lamed, Lamed (HLL)—also forms the root for “hallelujah.” And so, when the hallelujahs that close the piece spring up like so much plant life, they seem to forage even deeper into their origins. Tehillim is the Tree of Life feeding off itself, bathing in the spores of the Word made flesh.

Steve Reich - 1980 - Octet - Music For A Large Ensemble - Violin Phase

Steve Reich 
Octet - Music For A Large Ensemble - Violin Phase

01. Music For A Large Ensemble 15:28
02. Violin Phase 15:09
03. Octet 17:29

Russ Hartenberger: marimba
Glen Velez: marimba
Gary Schall: marimba
Richard Schwarz: marimba
Bob Becker: xylophone
David Van Tieghem: xylophone
James Preiss: vibraphone
Nurit Tilles: piano
Edmund Niemann: piano
Larry Karush: piano
Steve Reich: piano
Jay Clayton: voice
Elizabeth Arnold: voice
Shem Guibbory: violin
Robert Chausow: violin
Ruth Siegler: viola
Claire Bergmann: viola
Chris Finckel: cello
Michael Finckel: cello
Lewis Paer: bass
Judith Sugarman: basse
Virgil Blackwell: clarinet
Richard Cohen: clarinet
Mort Silver: flute
Ed Joffe: soprano saxophone
Vincent Gnojek: soprano saxophones
Douglas Hedwig: trumpet
Marshall Farr: trumpet
James Hamlin: trumpet
James Dooley: trumpet

Recorded February 1980 at Columbia Recording Studios, New York; March 1980 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg (Violin Phase)
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Have you ever repeated a word over and over again until it loses meaning? Cognitive science calls this “semantic satiation.” Now imagine that someone could do the same thing for instruments and you’ll have a clear idea of the power of a Steve Reich composition. In this selection of three longer examples, we get exactly that: an unraveling of music’s genetic code, transformed from within. It is for this more than any other reason that I’ve always been wary to use the word “minimal” in reference to Reich’s music, which is endlessly complex and never fails to engender new discoveries with every listen.

The instruments in Music For A Large Ensemble fit perfectly in a vast sequence of aural DNA, as logical as it is mystifying. Every voice is given ample breathing room in a piece that, while densely layered, is as airy and ordered as a puff of windblown dandelion. Strings waver with the unrelenting heat of a desert sun, horns ebb and flow in a brassy wash of equilibrium, and a vibraphone rings out like magic over all. Although the music moves mechanically, its feel is decidedly organic. This earthiness is maintained in the Violin Phase, which consists of a repeated motif that, as with all of Reich’s “phase” pieces, is knocked just slightly out of alignment by the doubling voice, like two turn signals rhythmically staggering and realigning. This is the most localized of Reich’s phases, clearly rooted as it is in the bluegrass fiddling tradition. The violin grinds like dirt or sand, small particles swirling and separating yet holding fast to some invisible predictability. After two such strikingly different pieces, the Octet somehow comes across as the most intimate. The inclusion of wind instruments, and in particular the clarinet and flute, adds a crystalline contrast in texture and melodic shifts, bringing us to a glorious and sudden silence.

Albums like this and Music for 18 Musicians will easily make one lose track of time. I am so often taken aback when this music ends, for it pulsates with such a robust sense of perpetual motion that its effect always seems to linger somewhere inside me. It is a tessellation in sound, each image shifting through time and space like an Escher print, so that what begins as a diamond ends up a bird in flight. Naturally, the sheer precision required to play Reich’s music is a feat in and of itself. That such a synergistic cast of musicians could arise out of the work of one composer is by all turns spectacular, and when so lovingly recorded their cumulative effect is all the more heightened. This is music that finds its expansiveness internally, charting the endless waters of our biological oceans until we come to our beginnings anew.

Steve Reich - 1978 - Music For 18 Musicians

Steve Reich 
Music For 18 Musicians

01. Pulse - Sections I - IV 26:55
02. Sections V - X - Pulse 32:00

Shem Guibbory: violin
Ken Ishii: cello
Elizabeth Arnold: voice
Rebecca Armstrong: voice
Pamela Fraley: voice
Nurit Tilles: piano
Steve Chambers: piano
Larry Karush: piano, maracas
Gary Schall: marimba, maracas
Bob Becker: marimba, xylophone
Russ Hartenberger: marimba, xylophone
Glen Velez: marimba, xylophone
James Preiss: metallophone, piano
Steve Reich: piano, marimba
David Van Tieghem: marimba, xylophone, piano
Virgil Blackwell: clarinet, bass clarinet
Richard Cohen: clarinet, bass clarinet
Jay Clayton: voice, piano

Recorded April 1976 at Town Hall, New York

Music for 18 Musicians makes no efforts to obscure the methods behind its construction. As such, it reveals a wealth of mysteries never notated on the printed page. The piece is scored for violin, cello, 2 clarinets doubling bass clarinet, 4 women’s voices, 4 pianos, 3 marimbas, 2 xylophones and metallophone (vibraphone with no motor). With his characteristic attention to detail, Reich utilizes these instruments not necessarily for their evocativeness, but for the unique and varied ways in which their timbres can be blended in a nearly hour-long wash of sound. Calling this “minimalism” would be unfair both to Reich and to the musicians among whom he makes this demanding journey. There is a sense of movement here that is both linear and multidirectional. I say this not for the sake of verbosity, but because Reich’s notecraft commits to its own agenda while latching on to so many others along the way.

The piece begins with a seamless blend of piano and mallet instruments threading its full length like a living metronome. Joining this is a chorus of breaths from human voices and winds. The interweaving of these substantial strands reinforces the compositional density, like marrow and nerves cohering into a spinal c(h)ord of decidedly aural design. At the risk of belaboring this analogy, I venture to see this piece as one active body in which each instrument writes the genetic code of its musical biology. This dynamic is further heightened by the presence of vocal utterances. Although these function as egalitarian extensions of manufactured instruments, they lend fragility to the underlying spirit of the music at hand. These voices rise and fall, slowly replaced by clarinets as if one and the same.

Sudden changes in rhythm serve to reconfigure our attention to the intervention of the composer’s hand: just as we are being lulled into a sense of perpetuity, akin to a natural cycle studied from afar, we are reminded that what we are listening to has been contrived at the whim of a single human mind. Far from undermining the piece, this awareness invites us to share in its re-creation through the very act of listening. Like much of Reich’s music, Music for 18 Musicians is nothing if not accommodating. Rather than patronize or proselytize, it lays itself bare. This brackets Music for 18 Musicians off from much of the histrionic art music in vogue at the time of its creation (1974-76). One could argue that it is scientific in its approach to structure. I prefer to see it as simply honest.

The recording quality of this album is ideally suited to its subject matter. There is a sense of “clusteredness” throughout, so that the performers never stray too far from the nexus of their unity, while also providing just enough breathing room (the performers’ lung capacities determine the length of sonic pulses throughout) for individual elements to shine. Most of the mixing, as it were, is done live through the sheer skill of Reich’s assembly of dedicated musicians, and requires meticulous attentiveness on the part of the recording engineer to highlight that complex interplay without overpowering the core. A beautiful and compelling landmark achievement.

Steve Reich - 1974 - Drumming / Music For Mallet Instruments, Voices And Organ / Six Pianos Images

Steve Reich 
Drumming / Music For Mallet Instruments, Voices And Organ / Six Pianos Images

01. Drumming Part I 24:58
02. Drumming Part II 25:45
03. Drumming Part III 15:32
04. Drumming Part IV 18:56
05. Six Pianos 24:05
06. Music For Mallet Instruments, Voices And Organ 18:30

Russ Hartenberger (1,2,3,4,5,6)
Bob Becker (1,2,3,4,5,6)
James Preiss (1,3,4,5,6)
Tim Ferchen (2,4,6)
Russ Hartenberger (2)
Steve Reich (2,3,4,5,6)
Steve Chambers (2,4,5,6)
Cornelius Cardew (2,4)
Ben Harms (2,4,6)
Glen Velez (2,3,4,5,6)
Joan LaBarbara (2,4,6)
Jay Clayton (2,4,6)
Leslie Scott (3,4)
Janice Jarret (6)

This three-LP set, released on Deutsche Grammophon in 1974, is arguably the pinnacle of minimalism. Along with Terry Riley's In C and perhaps Glass' early piano music, Drumming defined the essential component of this new form of music: a transparent process that could imperceptibly lead to bewildering complexity. Crucially, Reich added an extra ingredient: rhythms derived from his studies of West African drumming, giving the work an inherent vitality sometimes missing from his contemporaries. Drumming is a 75-minute piece laid out in four sections, one apiece for small tuned drums (played with mallets), marimbas, and glockenspiels, ending with a combination of all three plus the addition of voices mimicking the percussion. Beginning with a single struck drum, notes are added little by little, apparently simply filling the voids between them but, almost before the listener realizes it, suddenly being heard as new rhythmic patterns themselves, taking on a miraculously shifting guise. One can virtually choose to hear any of a number of rhythms depending on how one organizes the sounds in one's head. Indeed, Reich allowed his musicians to "discover" various rhythms for themselves and accent them accordingly. The process is fairly similar in each section, the palette changing from the beautifully resonant drums to the luscious marimbas to glockenspiels, the massed character of which add an extra element: ringing overtones. In Drumming, Reich arrived at the perfect combination of intellectual rigor and corporeal sensuousness, neither side predominating, both in clear and glorious presence. Six Pianos applies approximately the same strategies to multiple keyboards to intriguing, if ultimately less successful, effect. Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ is a preliminary step down the path Reich would take in coming years, using longer melodic lines and a looser, more expansive rhythmic system. Very beautiful in and of itself, one can't help but think that the composer really made his major statement earlier, in Drumming, and that much of what would follow would be elaboration on those basic ideas. As of 2002, this set had not been issued on disc, although Drumming was given a fine re-recording on Nonesuch in the late 80's. Still, the palpable sense of excitement on the part of the amazing musicians involved (interestingly enough, including the British composer Cornelius Cardew) is impossible to duplicate and Reich fans owe it to themselves to search out the original. This is a monumentally profound and important recording.

Marking an important intersection of western avant-garde thought with percussive practices inspired by Ghanaian drum rituals and Balinese gamelan ceremonies, Reich’s seminal recording has inspired countless composers since it was realised in 1973 and recorded in Hamburg, 1974, casting indelible influence over successive waves of electronic dance music - from disco to techno - thru post rock, indie-pop and all integers between them over the course of a radiant, enduring lifespan.

In fact, anyone would struggle to fully sum up the impact these recordings have had on modern music, from the way in which they effectively offered a transcendent solution to the difficulties of the serialist music which preceded them through use of innovative strategies of phasing repetition and psychoacoustic effects, to their refreshing and mesmerising pairing of percussion and vocals in distinctly unique harmonic structures, which flipped staid ideas of classical convention on their head with a new democracy of frequencies. 

Whilst they are most certainly the result of long, studious hours of dedication and rigorous communal practice, ultimately the beauty of all three pieces lies in their ostensible, affectively engaging simplicity; from the hypnotically infectious pulse which underpins Drumming and the way in which it naturally swoons in and out of phase, to the elegantly airborne lift of Six Pianos and the gently rapturous vocal percolations of Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ.

An essential addition to any record collection.

These days, record reviews tend to operate as pointers and nodes. Where they once offered an immersion into the world of ideas, in an era when anything can be heard through a search and a click, critics are there to tell you that something exists. Aspects of the larger condition are unarguably good – listeners learn to trust their ears and decide for themselves, but with it comes a growing failure to recognize many of the complex fields which draw us in – culture, context, history, and association, to name a few. It isn’t always sound which excites us about the music we love – it is also where it sits, what it represents, and the position it takes. In many cases – when entering through these objects, we don’t intuitively like what we hear. It’s a challenge which demands time and work – willingly taken because of where we encounter it, and its proximity to our sense of self. It is here that we find the great value of art – where we grow, learn, and change.

As I sat down to write about the long awaited reissue vinyl of Steve Reich’s  Drumming / Music For Mallet Instruments, Voices And Organ / Six Pianos, I wondered if I needed to do more than let people know it exists. In the history of 20th century Classical music, few works boast equal status. It is iconic – one of the most well know releases in the cannon of Minimalism, and over the course of its life, written about in countless ways. Is there anything left to say?

When you examine American Classical music, particularity during the decade or so following the Second World War, you are faced with ideas and sounds closely connected to (through extension, or reaction to) the European tradition of Serialism – founded on Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique. It was an era of complex thought, marked by difficult relationships of tone – effectively an elite context of music, sculpted for the few. During the early 60’s, a group of young composers, largely located in downtown Manhattan, embarked on a radical break – proposing a new direction for the avant-garde. With La Monte Young, Terry Riley, and Philip Glass, arguably the most important of these was Steve Reich. With music characterized by harmonic and tonal constraint, sometimes utilizing metronomic and repetitive rhythm, in time these composers came to be seen as a movement – referred to as the Minimalists.

The position and legacies of Minimalism are more complex than they first appear – particularly as it’s aged and carried on. It has become one of the great cannons within Twentieth Century Classical music – enjoying unparalleled popularity. As such, it’s easy to forget – in that sea of familiarity, the spirit in which the movement began. It was radical, confrontational, and shattered the field – unlike anything which came before, and accomplished things which few have done since – the most important of which, was the return of Classical music to populist ears. Though unprecedented in structure and approach, it also embraced a dangerous social conceit – offering what might be seen as difficult ideas and growth, without exclusion, to all.

Of course you have to recognize the music for what it is, but in the case of Minimalism, you are faced with a great deal more. It is not simply a music of intoxicating rhythms and harmonics, drawing us into profoundly moving depths. Like so many musics from the 1960’s and 70’s, it is sound and politic as one. Despite its presence in the popular landscape – having accomplished so much of what it set out to achieve, it’s important not to lose track of the radicalism of its ideas, and their relationship to the context within which they were conceived.

Steve Reich’s Drumming / Music For Mallet Instruments, Voices And Organ / Six Pianos was originally issued in 1974 by Deutsche Grammophon. With Terry Riley’s In C, it is probably the most highly regarded recording of Minimalist works, and as essential as they come. No one should be without it, at any cost. Though it has never been out of circulation, the LP box set has been out of print for decades – growing increasingly scarce and gained at great cost. The fact that its original label is bringing it back on vinyl, when much of the Classical music market remains dedicated to the CD, says a great deal. These are works for broad audiences – ears new and old. Of those in demand on recorded music’s most beautiful format, this is among the greatest of all.

Comprised of three of Reich’s most important works – stretching over three LP’s, which hold roughly two and a half hours of remarkable music, the set is one of the most important documents in the cannon of Twentieth Century music. Though only a sliver of the composer’s astounding output, in many ways, this is best place to enter his unequaled vision. Originally a drummer who studied philosophy – before pursuing composition under Luciano Berio and Darius Milhaud, of his peers, Reich saddled himself with the most tonal constraint, dedicating much his focus to possibilities found within patterns of rhythm. Among his many works, these stand with towering singularity, and arguably offer the greatest clarity toward understanding the focus of his work. They also raise an important component of Minimalism’s pursuit. For most of its history, with small exceptions within the late 19th and early 20th century when composers looked toward folk music traditions for inspiration, Classical music was an internal affair. It built upon its own accomplishments, and spoke within a defined field. Not only did Minimalism push beyond the expected context of encounter, it drew heavily on diverse musical traditions from around the world – territories beyond those viewed as an acceptable source. It was a challenge to the hegemony of Western ideals. While Terry Riley and La Monte Young turned to the Classical traditions of India, Reich looked to Africa, with its many sounds. In so doing, he helped sculpt a more democratic vision of the world, undermined the bigotry of standing value systems, and changed how we view music for good. It is within the works on this set, particularly Drumming, that this all began. The effects still ripple around us today.

In the decades that I’ve owned Drumming / Music For Mallet Instruments, Voices And Organ / Six Pianos, it has never failed to continuously unfold. It feels as radical as it always did – an unparalleled world of intertwining, hypnotic, and shifting rhythms, harmonics, and tones. I can’t imagine the vinyl edition will stay in print for long. It’s absolutely essential, so get it while you can. You can listen to its entirety below. Whether new or old, I recommend diving in and getting lost in  radical works which changed the world. Get it before it goes!

John Cage / Steve Reich - 1973 - Three Dances & Four Organs

John Cage / Steve Reich
Three Dances & Four Organs

01. John Cage Three Dances For Two Amplified Prepared Pianos No. 1 6:29
02. John Cage Three Dances For Two Amplified Prepared Pianos No. 2 7:07
03. John Cage Three Dances For Two Amplified Prepared Pianos No. 3 8:52
04. Steve Reich Four Organs For Four Electric Organs & Maracas 24:13

The present performances were prepared for the Ojai Festival in June 1973, of which Michael Tilson Thomas was Music Director, and recorded immediately afterward in Los Angeles.

Michael Tilson Thomas, pianos, organs
Ralph Grierson, pianos, organs
Roger Kellaway, organs
Steve Reich, organs
Tom Raney, maracas

Angel released this inspired pairing in 1973, though, unfortunately, it remains unavailable on cd. The first side is devoted to John Cage's extraordinary Three Dances for two amplified, prepared pianos, certainly one of his most accessible works and arguably one of his most sensuously beautiful. By carefully placing all manner of "debris" inside the body of the pianos (including screws, bolts, pieces of rubber, felt, etc.), the instrument becomes less a piano and more a kind of off-kilter gamelan orchestra. Gamelan and other music of Southeast Asia is clearly an inspiration for these dances in both the sonorities expressed and the rhythms employed. Indeed, listeners who know only Cage's chance-based compositions may be amazed at the sheer rhythmic vitality and melodic cadences found here. The first and third dances are driving, propulsive scores, the second serenely meditative for the most part. A youthful Michael Tilson Thomas and Ralph Grierson perform the work with an evidently joyful passion. Steve Reich's Four Organs (also recorded around the same time for the more obscure Shandar label) has one simple but deep idea. Take a dense electric organ chord and then, with extreme patience and slowness, gradually lengthen each note that makes up the chord so that one journeys from the rigorous exactitude of the opening statement (with regular rhythmic accompaniment by maracas) to a languorous sonic cloud where each of the constituent elements has been freed to waft away on its own. Very different, in several senses, from the Cage piece but similar in the driving desire to wrest the unexpectedly beautiful from "ordinary" materials. Difficult to find, but very worth one's while to pick up if located.