“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 fact to be
William Carlos Williams, “The Orchestra” in Steve Reich’s “The Desert Music.”
A Harlem teenager testifies on police brutality, and one phrase on tape – “come out to show them” – runs over and over with the two stereo channels oozing out of phase; the words vanish but the sound builds into a terrifying music, endlessly repeating, endlessly building. A radio reporter describes the landing and explosion of the dirigible Hindenburg, and the repetitions of a single shocked word builds on the tape like white-hot daggers. Words, again, turn into music, and they go right through you.
Some 33 years separate Steve Reich’s early experiments with tape phasing and the “Hindenburg” of 1999, visited upon a highly reactive young-in-heart crowd during San Francisco’s “American Mavericks” Festival this past June — the first panel of “Three Tales,” a multimedia triptych with his wife, media artist Beryl Korot now nearing completion. In between there is a repertory richly varied in its resource: chamber music, orchestral music, pieces for solo instruments accompanying themselves on multitrack tape, a work for nothing but two performers clapping hands, eighty minutes of ensemble drumming, a gigantic cantata, another kind of vocal work just about trains. The path from there to here has taken some curious turns now and then — “there” being, let’s say, the audience uprising on the night in 1973 [SEDGE:ck?] when Reich’s “Four Organs” shattered the complacent air in Carnegie Hall; “here” being his recent attainment of Columbia University’s prestigious William Schuman award, not to mention his current anointing as Musical America’s Composer of the Year.
Throughout this splendid repertory – celebrated in 1996 by a ten-disc retrospective box on Nonesuch Records in honor of its composer’s 60th birthday – certain constants persist. One is this matter of what the casual ear hears as repetition of small, insistent fragments — thus giving rise to the overused and misused term “minimalism” – but which is really a matter of infinitesmally slow but inexorable, breath-stopping change within a texture so that sometimes you start out at point A, arrive eventually at point B, and have no idea how or when you got there. The other is the composer’s ongoing obsession with the music that lies within the human voice, not only when singing a pretty Mozart tune but just as often in the mundane act of spoken communication. “Most people do some kind of singing when they speak,” says Reich, “more than they realize.”
“Come Out” serves as proof. The boy speaks his phrase as part of a taped testimony; later Steve Reich, transfixed by that one phrase, gets in onto a stereo tape which he then plays – and plays — with one channel slightly out of phase with the other until, 13 minutes, 658 repetitions later (by rough count), the music has built to a thunderous obsession with a five-note phrase that sounds for all the world like D minor.
“Come Out,” the party record in excelsis back in the legendary days when courageous record producers still stalked music’s outer edge, crystallized for Reich the several strands of his own musical identity, above all a fascination with African drumming ensembles, the overlap of short rhythmic patterns so that downbeats never came in the same place. Drumming had been his lifetime obsession, from his Manhattan boyhood through music studies at Cornell and beyond. At Cornell the legendary prof William Austin helped organize Reich’s priorities. “In his history class we began with really early music, medieval counterpoint and the like, and then moved on to world music and experiments. Only then did he go back and deal with the familiar masters. Compared to what we had begun with, all that 50-great-masterpiece stuff was like an afterthought.”
By the 1970s Reich was a throbbing presence on the new-music scene. There was “Drumming,” 80-or-so minutes of Africanized patterns breath-stoppingly ascendant; “Music for Mallet Instruments,” more of the same an octave or two higher; the dazzling, hourlong “Music for Eighteen Musicians,” a masterpiece by any measurement.
In the 1980s came the voice pieces: “Desert Music,” with William Carlos Williams;s words zooming through the orchestra, looping back on themselves, proclaiming the glory of their own music; “Different Trains,” with the spoken reminiscences of riders on trains woven into the multilayered texture of the Kronos Quartet taped several times on top of itself; the multimedia “The Cave,” with Korot, a tapestry of voices from several cultures old and new delivering a counterpoint of impressions about Abraham’s ancient cave and its contemporary significance. “By 1988,” says Reich, “I really got to concentrate on the way the human voice could work into an ensemble. With ‘Different Trains’ and ‘The Cave’ the music follows along with the text on tape, a sort of faithful scribe. Then, in ‘City Life’ I moved on; what, I wondered, would happen with no tape, with live voices, speaking and singing bits of text right off city streets, and picked up by the keyboards and sampled on the run, you might say. Okay so far?
“By the time we got to ‘Hindenburg,’ ” Reich continues, the rat-a-tat of his New York-intense exposition gathering steam, “we had not a sacred text, not any kind of poetry, but a guy, the radio announcer Herb Morris, scared off his block at what he’s witnessing. So we take that word of his, FLAME!!!! and we stretch it, run it in slow motion. The musicians get up to speed, and the disaster is running on Beryl’s screen, and the words just rain down on them. Back in 1967 I might have wanted to do things like this with a voice, but couldn’t. Now you can do it on a desktop.”
“Three Tales” will run from the “Hindenburg “visited upon a highly reactive young-in-heart crowd during San Francisco’s “American Mavericks” Festival this past June disaster into an essay on Bikini that will seek common ground between the H-bomb testing ground and the apparel that takes its name. The final segment concerns Dolly, the cloned Scottish sheep – with, Reich promises, huge blocks of harmony built up out of the vowel sounds of scientists and other observers.
A question suggests itself: “are you moving in any way toward opera?
“Well,” answers Steve Reich, “I consider this to be an opera. Okay; bel-canto voices on a stage and an orchestra in the pit have zero interest for me. Zero. That went out with the ‘Three-Penny Opera.’ ”
In a small hall on the Columbia campus, eighteen musicians hold an audience spellbound with an hourlong continuous outpouring, and at the end you’d have thought you’d discovered a new kind of light, blinding and deliriously audible.