by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, Nov. 13, 2006.
The other day, I watched as Steve Reich walked away from Carnegie Hall, where celebrations of his seventieth birthday were under way, and out into his native city. Trim and brisk, he darted into West Fifty-seventh Street, fell back before oncoming traffic, bopped impatiently in place, then darted forth again. He soon disappeared into the mass of people, his signature black cap floating above the crowd. Perhaps I should have lamented the fact that one of the greatest living composers was moving around New York unnoticed, but lamentation is not a Reichian state of mind, and I thought instead about how his work has blended into the cultural landscape, its repeating patterns and chiming timbres detectable all over modern music. Brian Eno, David Bowie, David Byrne, and a thousand d.j.s have paid him heed. On Fifty-seventh Street, Reich-inflected sounds may have been coursing through the headphones of a few oblivious passersby.
Three decades ago, New York’s leading institutions would have nothing to do with Reich. A riot broke out when Michael Tilson Thomas presented “Four Organs” at Carnegie in 1973: one woman tried to stop the concert by banging on the edge of the stage with her shoe. Now uptown is lionizing the longtime renegade. His birthday fell on October 3rd, and, in the ensuing weeks, Carnegie joined ranks with three other organizations to present a citywide festival. BAM began, with a program of Reich dances, choreographed by Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker and Akram Khan. Then the Whitney hosted a four-hour marathon, ranging from the eruptive “It’s Gonna Rain” (1965) to the medievally pure “Proverb” (1995). Carnegie took up the baton with a four-day weekend of concerts, including Reich’s most recent composition, “Daniel Variations,” written in memory of the slain journalist Daniel Pearl. Lincoln Center finished, with “You Are (Variations),” “Tehillim,” and “The Cave.”
The central event was a grand concert at Carnegie. Pat Metheny played “Electric Counterpoint,” the Kronos Quartet played “Different Trains,” and Steve Reich and Musicians played “Music for 18 Musicians.” The last is often pronounced Reich’s masterpiece, and on this occasion, swathed in Carnegie’s reverberant acoustics, it unfolded like a dreamscape, its piano and percussion pulses dissolving in a blur, its attenuated melodies shimmering in a haze of resonances, its rich chords suspended for long moments. At one point, the composer walked away from his piano and stood for a moment in a corner, watching his thirty-year-old wonder unfold. As the scattered rock stars in the audience might have attested, you can’t get any cooler than that.
Reich’s eureka moment occurred in the mid-nineteen-sixties, when he was living in San Francisco. He had taped a street preacher named Brother Walter shouting “It’s gonna rain!” during a sermon on Noah and the Flood, and he looped those words on two tape recorders. When he pushed play on both machines, he found that one was running slightly faster than the other, so that the loops went out of sync. The machines began writing contrapuntal patterns in the air, an electronic canon for two raging voices.
The eighteen-minute tape composition that Reich extracted from this accident is ominously compelling in itself, but his masterstroke was to apply the going-out-of-phase trick to instrumental music, in “Piano Phase” (1967), for two pianos. I heard that simple, stunning piece three times last month: at BAM, in its original version; at the Whitney, in a version for two marimbas; and at Carnegie, in a version created by the percussionist David Cossin, who plays it on digital sound pads. (A video of Cossin playing the other part was superimposed, giving him a Vishnu-like, four-armed appearance.) The opening section uses only the notes E, F-sharp, B, C-sharp, and D, which, when run together in rapid patterns, suggest the key of B minor. Halfway in, the note A is added to the series, tilting the harmony toward A major. This small change never fails to have a brightening, energizing impact. Pieces like this can leave you happy for hours, like drugs without the mess.
“Piano Phase,” along with Terry Riley’s “In C” and Philip Glass’s “Music in Similar Motion,” marked a turning point. After a spell of avant-garde complexity, these young American composers were rediscovering the elements of music—a steady beat, tonal chords. Yet their work was absolutely modern, without nostalgia, without a trace of “neo” or “post.” In subsequent years, Reich kept pressing forward: in “Drumming,” he applied what he called “music as a gradual process” on a symphonic scale; in “Tehillim,” he blended his modern language with ancient Hebrew cantillation; and in “Different Trains” and the video operas “The Cave” and “Three Tales” he competed with hip-hop innovators in combining recorded samples with live music. To hear the majority of Reich’s work in a few weeks was to be amazed by the Stravinsky-like precision of his solutions to a wide array of musical problems. One issue he has never fully resolved, though, is how to present amplified music in traditional halls. The superb Los Angeles Master Chorale, in particular, was hampered by muddy sound in Alice Tully Hall.
In the most recent pieces—“You Are (Variations),” Variations for Vibes, Pianos, and Strings, “Daniel Variations”—Reich has consolidated four decades of invention. Neon-lit textures have given way to dense, dusky landscapes, with tender lyrical passages at the heart of each piece. It’s as if Reich were finally letting himself look back in time, perhaps even indulging a secret Romantic urge. Yet, in the tribute to Daniel Pearl, there is also a new influx of coiled power: fleets of pianos and percussion tap out telegraphic patterns, warning of the next big crash.
Reich changed music, and he also changed how music relates to society. In the face of early incomprehension, he took a do-it-yourself approach to getting his work before the public. Nonclassical musicians were among his models: he saw John Coltrane some fifty times, and marvelled at how the great man would unleash mind-bending sounds, pack up his sax, and disappear into the night. With his namesake ensemble, Reich performed in galleries, clubs, and wherever else he felt welcome. The effects of this paradigm shift can be seen on any day of the week in New York, as composer-led ensembles proliferate. Bang on a Can is the longtime leader, and the NOW Ensemble is a deft young group gaining attention. The American Composers Orchestra, undergoing a happy revitalization, is highlighting composer-performers all season: a recent show at Zankel Hall mixed vividly colored ensemble pieces by Michael Gatonska, Brad Lubman, and Michael Gandolfi with solo appearances by the painterly percussionist Susie Ibarra and the sharp-witted songwriter Corey Dargel. Post-Reich, composers are evolving into a more mobile, adaptable species.
The Reich ensemble retains most of its original members, and they remain an awesome force, even as shaggy hairdos have given way to dignified shocks of white. At Zankel Hall, they played Part I of “Drumming,” a phase-shifting tour de force in which bongos are struck with sticks. I was curious to see how they would compare with two sharp young ensembles who had performed the same stretch of music in recent weeks—So Percussion, at Symphony Space, and four Juilliard percussionists, at Carnegie. The youngsters drummed with effortless grace, as if the score were written into their genetic code. But the veterans more than held their own, bringing to bear a kind of disciplined wildness, in the spirit of the Ghanaian drummers with whom Reich studied before he wrote the piece. The energy that blazed up at climactic moments could have powered the hall in a blackout.
Reich has the reputation of being a “cool customer,” to take a phrase from Joan Didion. But there is heat below the surface. Like so many major artists, he has a profoundly equivocal nature; he immerses himself in strict procedures, and yet he takes on subjects that are almost unbearably charged. At various times, he has addressed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, American racism, the Holocaust, the encroachment of technology, and, now, Islamic terrorism. He has empathy for outsider voices: it seems no accident that his seminal work, “It’s Gonna Rain,” took off from the ranting of an African-American preacher, who, at the time, probably caused passersby to wince and walk faster. In his high-tech pieces, voices may be cut up, looped back, and layered upon themselves, but their raw emotions stay intact. The composer does not tell us what to feel. Instead of pointing a finger, he raises a hand.
In this sense, “Different Trains,” for recorded voices and string quartet, may be Reich’s most staggering achievement, even if “Music for 18” gives the purest pleasure. He wrote the piece in 1988, after recalling cross-country train trips that he had taken as a child. “As a Jew, if I had been in Europe during this period, I would have had to ride very different trains,” he has said. Recordings of his nanny reminiscing about their journeys and of an elderly man named Lawrence Davis recalling his career as a Pullman porter are juxtaposed with the testimonies of three Holocaust survivors. These voices give a picture of the dividedness of twentieth-century experience, of the irreconcilability of American idyll and European horror—and something in Mr. Davis’s weary voice also reminds us that America was never an idyll for all. The hidden melodies of the spoken material generate string writing that is rich in fragmentary modal tunes and gently pulsing rhythms.
At Carnegie, Kronos played “Different Trains” with unusual force. Hank Dutt, the violist, added touches of throaty vibrato, as if to indicate the Old World culture that Hitler destroyed. The final minutes were, as ever, harrowingly beautiful, with the words of a death-camp survivor woven into unearthly luminous music: “They loved to listen to the singing, the Germans. . . . They said, ‘More, more,’ and they applauded.” There was a long silence before the ovation for Reich began.