Sorise For Sore Ears: The ‘Phases’ of Steve Reich

Feb 6, 2007 at 7:21 pm
Stasis is the state of stability in which all forces are equal and opposing and cancel out each other.
In minimalist music, stasis is the technique used to denote slow musical development, an idea that American composer Steve Reich pioneered and changed to suit his own innovations. British newspaper The Guardian has described Reich as one of the few composers to have “altered the direction of musical history.”
To that end, he has also altered the course of his own career — in the recently released Phases: A Nonesuch Retrospective, Reich’s musical platitudes are realized, minimal and otherwise.

Born in 1936, Reich grew up traveling on trains between his native New York and California. He would later say that “the clickety-clack of wheels rolling along tracks helped develop my rhythmic sense,” an elementary influence that would manifest itself into 1988’s haunting “Different Trains,” performed by the Kronos Quartet.
At 14, Reich, taken with the music of the Baroque period as well as music of the 20th century, began to study composition in earnest. He attended Cornell University and graduated with a degree in philosophy. He did a stint at Juilliard but soon left for the West Coast in 1961 to study under Italian composer Luciano Berio.

Most of Reich’s early works involved experimentation with 12-tone composition, a method developed by Arnold Schoenberg, which created ordered arrangements of the 12 notes of the chromatic scale. Yet, there was something grudging about his use of the recognized compositional approach. Reich began hearing alternatives in the improvisations of John Coltrane, whom he went to see more than 50 times. He also expanded on this idea with recordings of polyrhythmic African drumming.

In 1964, Reich participated in the first performance of Terry Riley’s “In C,” a hypnotic haze of multiple, looping patterns derived from the C-major scale. Repetition intrigued Reich to no end and is evident in early creations like “It’s Gonna Rain” and “Piano Phase.” 

However, Reich hit a stroke of genius with his oft-called masterwork “Music for 18 Musicians,” a pulsating collection of repetitive rhythms, reminiscent of the driving wheels of a train, balanced by a sophisticated drama of harmony flanked by inspiration of West African drums and Gamelan music.

The hour-long piece is an arc that takes the listener from light to dark and back to light again. Abandoning his original beginnings in 12-tone, he approached “18 Musicians” with a cycle of 11 chords. Each governs a section from two to seven minutes long, thus helping to create stasis. This was his first work regarded as “grand minimalism” — others noted on Phases are “Drumming,” “Tehillim” and “The Desert Music,” a response to the lush, spacious settings of poet William Carlos Williams.

Phases collects Reich’s works from 1967 to 2003. The retrospective creates a cohesive yet ever-changing approach to what is minimal. As Reich said in a 2000 interview with the German magazine Planet Interview, minimalism “played a kind of role in my works before 1976, but my style has changed many times, and I could not write that kind of music anymore, because I’ve done it, and it’s not interesting to do things which you have already done. I love those pieces, but I can’t write them again.”

From tape loops to phasing patterns in early works, to the use of processes to create, explore and expand upon musical concepts, Reich’s music has significantly influenced contemporary musicians like Philip Glass, Brian Eno, David Lang and Michael Gordon (of Bang on a Can) and Sufjan Stevens.

At 70, Reich is still composing and was last heard to be working on an unnamed work commissioned by eighth blackbird, an American ensemble. He says he is using Stravinsky and Balanchine’s “Agon” (1957) as a source of inspiration for the piece.

Steve Reich Phases: A Nonesuch Retrospective is out now on CD. It’s highly recommended.

Kim Sorise writes monthly for LEO. She DJs “Global Grease” on Fridays at the North End Café and other at fine Louisville establishments. Contact her at [email protected]