Steve Reich - Phases: A Nonesuch Retrospective

"The result, as with much of Reich's work from this period, can be to send the listener into an almost trance like state, or, if the listener rails against the rigid patterns, into a state of almost unparalleled annoyance."

Steve Reich – Phases: A Nonesuch Retrospective


Released to commemorate Reich's 70th birthday, this 5 CD set brings together works from across the entire range of Reich's forty-year career. Five full CDs gives you a lot to go at, but not as much, it should be said, as the 10 CD box set that accompanied his 60th birthday. All of this hullabaloo, with a series of retrospective concert seasons in tow, can be explained by the fact that Reich is genuinely considered to be the most important American composer to be working today. I'm not convinced that this is necessarily the case, and I'm certainly not going to sanction the use of the word important. But it is undeniable that Reich has created a formidable body of work; a body of work that is both rigorous and mechanistic, both brutal and beautiful, both exhilarating and desolating. He is undoubtedly one of the most influential and interesting modern composers.


Reich, along with Adams and Glass, is generally labelled a minimalist. Fellow composer Michael Nyman coined this label and on one level it is easy to understand why. They are all, or at least all were once, practitioners of 'systems music'. This basically means that they create music that evolves gradually and which includes a great deal of repetition.  Harmony is absent, as is a sense of development and climax. The work of the minimalists (and most of those who are labelled such dispute the title) differs quite a lot - Reich, for instance, looks at the way that the rhythms move out of alignment with each other.


If all of this sounds somewhat dry then the results are usually anything but. Come Out (1966) is the earliest piece and still sounds exhilarating today. It is a based around a spoken phrase. This phrase is then chopped up and repeated slightly out of sync so that the words begin to merge and create new sounds. At first the sentence is repeated in its entirety. But as soon as the phrase 'come out to show them' is selected and repeated the feeling is incredible: it is the birth of sampling and so much else besides. All of this was done on tape of course, but what might seem to be an intellectual exercise emerges as anything but.


Reich moved on from spoken word pieces and due to his interest in music from other cultures (African drumming and Indonesian gamelan, for instance) the range of music that he created increased. Whereas Philip Glass' music has often centred round violins, keyboards and voices, so Reich's has been much more percussion based. Drumming is an amazing piece to listen to: not only does it boggle the mind that people can play its intricate patterns and shifting rhythms, but the piece quickly becomes hypnotic. Eventually marimbas, glockenspiels and voices take over the drummed parts. The result, as with much of Reich's work from this period, can be to send the listener into an almost trance like state, or, if the listener rails against the rigid patterns, into a state of almost unparalleled annoyance.


Reich's music, if one looks at it from a traditional perspective, is not 'easy'. But if the music omits many of the methods traditionally employed to help create feelings in the listener it would be a mistake to think of it as lacking emotion. Reich, who studied philosophy at university, is not afraid to deal with big themes. It is astonishing (and perhaps symptomatic of the world of 'classical' music) that composers who deal with politics are subject to incredible scrutiny. John Adams' The Death of Klinghoffer, for instance, has attracted an incredible amount of opprobrium and performances have even been pulled: would this happen to an author or filmmaker that made an equivalent piece? Reich, for his part, tends to deal with the big subjects in a relatively oblique way and it is left for the audience to draw their own conclusions, if indeed any conclusions are warranted. Different Trains (1988) fused the early spoken pieces along with personal memories and, hauntingly, memories of holocaust survivors. The different trains of the title refer to the four day train journey that Reich regularly made between his divorced parents' houses and the train trips made by Jews on their way to the concentration camps. It is an incredibly evocative work: the central propulsive violins convey the effect of the train whilst people's voices (not singers, or choirs, but 'real' voices) are sampled and sprinkled throughout the length of the piece. This is not a piece 'about' the holocaust; there is nothing didactic about it. Similarly one of the Three Tales (not included on this retrospective) deals with cloning and genetic engineering. Over the music scientists talk about Dolly the Sheep (amongst other things) and Richard Dawkins is sampled talking about genes. There is no conclusion that the piece reaches (via the words) and this, I suppose, is appropriate given the nature of minimalist or systems music. Many of these pieces could, conceivably, go on forever. Endings are imaginary; 'closure' is an invention of the psychotherapy industry. Reich is not, however, an evasive composer, reluctant to actually get his hands dirty. His latest work concerns the murdered American journalist Daniel Pearl. He will no doubt continue to write music that elicits attention from both heart and head and for that we must be truly thankful.


Words: Chris Dawson