The man considered by many who have an opinion on the matter to be the greatest living composer is coming to Ireland in the middle of February. Steve Reich has never been to these shores before, and will arrive amidst a blaze of activity: seventeen of his works, roughly a third of his total output to date, will be heard over the course of three days at this year’s RTÉ Living Music Festival. This is a cause for celebration. Partly because: how many possibly-greatest-living-composers would you say have been to Ireland before? (Many? A few? None?) And partly because: many of Reich’s greatest works (Drumming, Music for 18 Musicians, Variations for Winds, Strings and Keyboards, Different Trains, and many others) have received only a few performances in Ireland, or none at all. But most importantly because: in the case of Reich, as with all very great artists, there are so many mistaken notions about his work flying around, so many opinions and counter-opinions, that the intensive exposure his music will receive in Dublin this winter finally gives us the chance to lay a few of these ghosts to rest, to see and hear the man for ourselves, to come to our own conclusions. Is Steve Reich really the greatest living composer?
Reich’s work, in some ways, is only slightly less controversial today than it was when he was starting out. Much of what we think we know about it doesn’t stand up to close examination. To begin with, let’s take the term ‘Minimalism’, which seems inextricably tied to Reich’s name and supposedly to that whole musical movement (style? genre?) of which he is the begetter. To call Reich the ‘founder of Minimalism’ is accurate enough except for two things: he wasn’t really the founder, and he’s not really a Minimalist. He himself has repeatedly acknowledged that his own earliest works (It’s Gonna Rain and Come Out, from 1965-66) grew from a musical climate in which figures like La Monte Young and Terry Riley had already worked with extended repetition as a structural device in music, and had used small amounts of musical material prolonged over large spans of time.
Reich has acknowledged, too, the influence in his music of the metrical pulse and modal harmonies of be-bop, and the stimulus of tape loops and the then-new technology in the San Francisco Tape Music Center, which he frequented in those early years. All these things set the context from which his early work grew, and he has never claimed otherwise.
As a term, Minimalism was used widely in discussions of the visual arts before it was ever applied to music; it described the monochrome paintings of Frank Stella, the fluorescent tubes of Dan Flavin, the sculptures of Donald Judd or Richard Serra. When the word was first used in connection with music a few years later – by Michael Nyman, now best known as a film composer but then an insightful critic and musicologist – it was an improvement on other terms used to describe the music of Riley, Reich, and Philip Glass (‘pulse music’, ‘systems music’, ‘process music’), but only a slight improvement, and the term was never meant, least of all by Nyman himself, to be set in formaldehyde and handed down from generation to generation. (Parenthetically, I might add that the term has actually never seemed to me all that bad as a description of Reich’s earliest work, although it applies much better to early La Monte Young. By the late 1970s, however, it was well and truly past its sell-by date.) OK, Reich isn’t, or isn’t just, a Minimalist – we all know what stupid things labels are. So what can we say about him that isn’t misleading?
Altering music history
To begin with, a few facts. (There are no facts, Nietzsche pointed out, only interpretations.) To begin with, a few ‘facts’. It’s more than advertising hype to claim that Reich is ‘the most famous living American composer’: it’s true (if we leave aside composers primarily associated with film or popular musics, the only other possible contender is Philip Glass). He’s not the most frequently performed; statistically, that distinction goes to his younger colleague John Adams. But Adams’ appeal is largely confined to the ‘classical music’ audience, those who attend operas and symphony orchestra concerts: Reich’s is very much broader, so in that sense he’s more famous. (As early as the mid-1970s his fans included Brian Eno and David Bowie, and his subsequent impact on the pop music world has been considerable. Imitations began to be audible in the early 80s and a deeper impact manifested itself in the 90s with bands like The Orb and certain sectors of DJ culture.) He is also the living composer who has received the most widespread adulation across the widest spectrum, stretching all the way from the bowels of academia to the light of the popular press; even so fine and much-loved a composer as Ligeti can’t equal this sort of breadth. The Guardian in London, for example, wrote: ‘There’s just a handful of living composers who can legitimately claim to have altered the direction of musical history and Steve Reich is one of them’. (Not a bad thing to have on your CV.) Moreover, this acclaim has been hard-won: Reich has always had his detractors. Over the years, as his output has developed and taken some surprising twists and turns, the adulation has waxed and waned, but by the beginning of our new century it has intensified to an unprecedented degree and the dissenting voices have been all but stilled. Or have they?
OK, let’s cut to the chase: what exactly do Reich’s detractors actually say about him? We know all about the nice things people have said – what about the nasty stuff? If I were to try to summarise the case for the prosecution it would look something like this (and what follows are grapevine opinions, the sort of objections I’ve heard over the years at concerts or over a few beers with my so-called ‘friends’, not formal, argued-out criticisms):
1) Reich’s music is simplistic; it’s one-dimensional.
2) It’s mechanical, even de-humanising; it leaves the performer no room for ‘expression’.
3) It ignores the real problems of modern music and substitutes a language of broad appeal.
4) Any music that’s so popular can’t be all that good.
(Mental note: certain ‘friendships’ are urgently in need of reconsideration.) How then does someone like me, who has loved Reich’s music since I first heard it at age eighteen, respond to these charges?
To begin with, what to some people is musically simplistic is to me a welcome intensity of focus. Drumming (1971), for example, uses one short repeated rhythmic pattern for its entire hour-long duration – but what richness Reich derives from that one pattern! In an ever-more complex world the benefits of such focusing, of the mind and the senses, don’t seem in need of much justification. We should remember that Reich emerged as a composer in the heyday of psychoanalysis and meditation; his work has responded to that climate, but by encouraging us to sharpen our listening minds, not to dull or drug them. (His music repays close listening; if you get lulled into a trance you’ll miss some great things.) As for ‘one-dimensional’, never, not in a million years; single-minded, yes – but there’s all the difference in the world. Dehumanising the performer? Such charges tend in my experience to be made by those who’ve never played any of his music; as one who has, all I can say is that rehearsing and performing Reich has been among the most rewarding musical experiences of my life, introducing me to a new kind of structural listening and a physical relationship to the piano that has pushed me well beyond my supposed limits as a performer.
What about the more damning charge that Reich has merely been fiddling while the more complex sort of contemporary music burns? that his work fails to confront the real problems of modern music? Inherent in this question, it seems to me, is an outmoded view of history, which claims there is only one sort of modern music, central to all cultures and all value systems, whose problems are shared (or should be shared) by all of us. The New York that Steve Reich grew up in, as he has pointed out, is not the Vienna that Arnold Schoenberg grew up in. What are considered to be the ‘urgent issues’ of contemporary music differ depending on the generation, geographical location, and even temperament of the individual artist. Reich hasn’t buried his head in the problems of his grandfather’s generation: his own generation had plenty of new problems to contend with. True, he rejected total serialism (a compositional technique derived ultimately from Schoenberg, and the new thing of the avant-garde of the 1950s when Reich was a student) as an artificially intellectual system of compositional control; but then so, for not dissimilar reasons, did Ligeti and Xenakis, yet no-one accuses them of ignoring the problems of modern music. And what are Reich’s generation’s problems? Well, among many others: how to respond to American popular culture and mass culture; how to absorb the lessons learned from other world cultures; how to find meaning in a secular society. Reich’s music has learned much from jazz, from forms of traditional African music and from traditional forms of Jewish cantillation, as much as it has from Bach or Bartók and more than it has from certain periods of western classical music (roughly 1750-1900, and arguably also 1945-60). ‘All music’, as he wrote in his splendid book Writings about Music 1965-2000, ‘turns out to be ethnic music’. In making us see European classical music as one form of human music among many and not in any sense the ‘greatest’, and in bringing this perception to vibrant life in his compositions, Reich is one of the twentieth century’s great musical visionaries.
Pretentious and bourgeois?
What about the final charge, that Reich is too popular to be good? This absurd idea would be easier to dismiss were its foundations not so deeply imbedded in our view of the history of music. We are used to, and even approve of, the idea that any genuinely creative work in whatever art-form necessarily meets with resistance or rejection when it is new. A certain strength of opposition is even a good sign, showing that the work is vital and bold enough to upset conventional taste. Beethoven met with this kind of opposition, as did Elvis Presley. We shouldn’t forget that Reich’s music has provoked plenty of controversy over the years, and still does. An early performance of his spellbinding Four Organs (1970) in the context of a Boston Symphony Orchestra series was nearly halted because of shouts of abuse from the audience. I first heard his tape piece Come Out (1966) twenty years after he composed it, at a Steve Reich at 50 concert in London. The piece is based on a recorded sample of the voice of a young Afro-American man describing the beatings he received in police custody while under arrest for supposedly having participated in a riot. Midway through the piece’s churning, hair-raising transformations of the sound of the man’s voice, a clearly unimpressed member of the audience shouted out ‘Bollocks!’ And, a moment later, ‘Pretentious bourgeois audience!’ Being neither pretentious nor bourgeois, I beg to differ: I find Come Out one of the great tape pieces of all time, and a powerful humanitarian statement about man’s inhumanity to man, voiced in entirely contemporary terms.
We should acknowledge, too, that there is a less noble version of the accusation that Reich is too popular to be good. A small faction, quite a few composers included, are simply jealous of his success – of the number of performances, recordings, and column inches his work has generated. This jealousy tries to justify itself in different ways. Reich, so one argument goes, is not a better composer than dozens of his contemporaries, he just gets more attention; if only we knew more of the work of those composers who were around him in San Francisco and New York in the mid-60s, we’d see how great those guys are too – his celebrity has unjustly placed them in the shadow. Well, there’s no need for the ‘if only…’; much of the American music of this era has now been released on CD, and I’ve listened to quite a bit of it. There are indeed some gems, but none of it makes Reich’s achievement seem any the less. Actually – surprise, surprise! – it’s more like the opposite; very few of these composers have renewed and reinvented themselves as impressively as has Reich, so that some of them (I won’t name names) still seem stuck in the 1960s, clinging to the dubious justification that not changing or developing is some kind of sign of true artistic integrity. A curious variant of this argument is in the form of a conspiracy theory: we’ve all been brainwashed into thinking Reich is a great composer because critical opinion and the music industry – fuelled by Nonesuch (his record company), Boosey and Hawkes (his publisher), and the backing of various festival directors around the world – have worked hard to nurture his success because of the obvious advantage, chiefly financial, to themselves. There’s one immediate problem with this theory: it assumes, strangely, that Reich’s celebrity has come about through non-musical factors, and ignores the obvious fact that perhaps the reason Reich is so widely listened to is because his music is so good. Just because some no-talent pop artist reaches more people in a year than a great composer like Morton Feldman reached in his entire lifetime (Feldman’s music can also be heard in the RTÉ Living Music Festival) doesn’t mean that it’s only crap that gets heard by a lot of people.
A final point. The idea is still occasionally voiced that any musician could do the kind of thing Reich does: just take a riff, repeat it lots of times, add an occasional change of harmony, and bob’s your uncle. He may have done it first, more or less, but any musician could have done it. I disagree. Let’s take Piano Phase (1967), one of the earliest works in his catalogue. In it, Reich introduced a totally new technique into western instrumental music, one that he calls phase shifting. The idea is simple enough to describe: two instruments of identical timbre (in this case, two pianos) play a short musical phrase of steady sixteenth-notes over and over again in unison. Piano 2 – very, very gradually – increases tempo, while Piano 1 resolutely stays put. The effect is that they fall out of synch with each other. For a few seconds they seem to have landed in a sort of rhythmic no-man’s-land, where the listener has no clue where the ‘real’ beat is. Another few seconds later something miraculous happens. Piano 2, still playing very slightly faster, lands back in synch with Piano 1, but is now one sixteenth-note ‘ahead’; their rhythms lock in, and a new, incredibly funky musical relationship is established between them without any new material being added. They keep going like this for a while until Piano 2 – very, very gradually – increases tempo again, and the ‘phase shifting process’ happens a second time. When they come out the other end yet another new variant on the pattern settles into aural focus. And so on. When I was getting in to Reich, in my late teens, I thought: well, that’s easy! I’ll try it! So I wrote a ‘phase piece’ for two pianos roughly along the same structural lines as Piano Phase. The trouble is, my piece is a load of rubbish. Applying the phasing process to my melodic/harmonic pattern turned it into a grey, featureless mush. One possible explanation for the quality discrepancy in our two pieces is that Steve Reich is a better composer than I am. Unless, of course, anyone out there wants to test the conspiracy theory and put some money behind me to publish, record and promote my music. Any takers? Ah, I thought not.
So is Steve Reich the greatest living composer? I probably should have mentioned at the outset that I don’t really believe in the concept, so I’m afraid I can’t tell you. You’ll have to come to the RTÉ Living Music Festival, have a listen, and decide for yourself.
Published on 1 January 2006
Bob Gilmore is a musicologist and keyboard player born in Northern Ireland and presently teaching at Brunel University in London.