Steve Reich is that most rare creature, an American composer who has been a leading, regularly performed voice in the classical music field for more than five decades. With its steady, pulsing beat and lush harmonies that hold constant for pages, his music is often mesmerizing. Luminous and smooth on the surface, the music in its depths contains minute, intricately wrought, ever-shifting detail. Composers don’t like to be labeled, but in the 1960s and ’70s Reich was a pioneer in the so-called minimalist style. Along with Philip Glass and Terry Riley, he helped shift classical music decisively away from a preoccupation with complex dissonance.
A winner of two Grammys, the Polar Music Prize, Praemium Imperiale Award and the Pulitzer Prize, Reich turned 80 last month, and the music world is celebrating. This season he holds the Debs Composer’s Chair at New York’s Carnegie Hall, and in June, Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music awarded him its prestigious Nemmers Prize in Music Composition. The CSO’s MusicNOW concert Nov. 21 will join the celebration with an all-Reich evening that explores the composer’s wide range. The program includes Proverb (1995), for five singers, two vibraphones and two electric organs, and Different Trains (1988), a dramatic piece for string quartet and taped speech, which won a Grammy in 1989. Closing the concert is Double Sextet (2008), written for the Chicago-based ensemble eighth blackbird, and winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 2009.
Like many of us enthralled by Reich’s music, Samuel Adams, one of the CSO’s composers-in-residence who also oversees the MusicNOW series, remembers the first time he heard a Reich piece. A youngster who knew what he liked, he was not impressed.
His first encounter with Reich came in the mid-1990s at the San Francisco Symphony as part of its American Mavericks Festival, an exploration of 20th century music, programmed by Michael Tilson Thomas, SFS music director. “It was a performance of Reich’s early work, Four Organs,” he said. “I think Reich was performing alongside MTT [Michael Tilson Thomas]. “I was 9 or 10 years old,” Adams recalled, erupting with laughter. “I was utterly bored out of my mind. I didn’t understand why music like this should exist, and why we should endure hearing the same harmony for such an extended period of time.
“I went home and I wanted to understand what I had just heard. I listened to the piece again, and I listened to some of his other works, and I actually haven’t been able to stop listening to it. It was an experience where encountering something very challenging opened up and illuminated a completely new world.”
Until that point, classical music for Adams “had been more or less limited to the 18th- and 19th-century repertoire — Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn,” he said. “[Reich’s] music was just full of such endlessly gorgeous harmony and also pulsed and revealed a kind of molecular symmetry and clarity. It was something that I hadn’t really heard before, particularly in classical music. And it spoke to me.”
Actual speech, used to haunting effect in Different Trains, has been integral to Reich’s music from the very beginning. It’s Gonna Rain was his first high-profile work, created from a recording he made in 1964 at San Francisco’s Union Square of a street preacher warning about the end of the world. Reich recorded the preacher’s apocalyptic sermon on two tape machines and spliced together tiny pieces of that speech. During playback, the machines fell out of sync, and the preacher’s words dissolved into pure, endlessly repeated rhythms and melody.
Long before hip-hop artists turned to sampling in the 1980s, Reich was using bits and pieces of previously recorded sound in his own compositions. In Different Trains, a meditation on the Holocaust, Reich mixes the rattle of speeding trains, the voices of Pullman porters calling out stations and the voices of Holocaust survivors recalling their horrific travels to Nazi concentration camps.
Reich’s music, with its constant, infectious rhythm, has been manna for choreographers. His Music for 18 Musicians (1976) became the dance-world equivalent of an earworm. In the early 1980s, it seemed that no modern dance concert was complete without a work set to Reich’s pulsing, mesmerizingly mellifluous score for female singers, four pianos, mallet percussion and assorted other instruments. In 2001, the prominent Dutch choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker used the music for a ballet titled Rain. In 2013, Sylvain Groud’s Compagnie MAD used the music for a dance that blended amateur and professional performers.
After Monday’s concert, MusicNOW audiences can informally experience some of Reich’s earliest music in the Harris Theater’s lower lobby. A tape of It’s Gonna Rain and a video collaboration by Keersmaeker and Thierry De Mey set to Come Out (1966), a work using taped speech, will be part of the mix, as well as his Pendulum Music, which calls for swinging microphones that alternately catch and lose the sounds coming out of speakers.
Happy 80th birthday to a composer whose music feels eternally fresh.
Wynne Delacoma, classical music critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1991 t0 2006, is a Chicago-based journalist and lecturer.
TOP: Samuel Adams interviews Steve Reich, ahead of the MusicNOW tribute Nov. 21 to the composer. | Todd Rosenberg Photography 2016