Seminal minimalist Steve Reich arguably laid the groundwork for hip-hop and techno. Now 80, he is still producing work as relevant as ever. We examine a hypnotic 3-CD boxset of aural landscapes.
The Reich stuff: the minimalist musician with the magnetic pull
As a minimalist composer, Steve Reich likes to repeat musical phrases, repeat musical phrases, repeat musical phrases. But then he also repeats with subtle differences, repeats with nuanced discrepancies, repeats with minor variations in a way that makes for both entrancing movements and a hypnotising whole.
If the appeal of repetition of the kind seems suspect or unclear, listen to Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians and see if you’re able to avoid its immense, all-encompassing magnetic pull. It’s hard to call to mind a seminal classic of any form that is more instantly engaging and, for all its weirdness and cerebral/conceptual pedigree, rewarding even for the lay recipient not inclined toward artistic legacy or historical worth.
Music for 18 Musicians was composed over the course of a couple years and released via a recording for the first time in 1978, when the European label ECM went in with a challenging composer from downtown New York. The piece was confounding and perplexing but also mesmerising for its hypnotic effects that need to be experienced to be understood.
The album – one of three included in a new archival 3-CD set The ECM Recordings, which gathers important works by Reich on the occasion of his 80th birthday – proved a success at the time, finding listeners far afield from the classical music world. Decades later, it remains a touchstone for Reich as well as all that has been surveyed and assembled under the mantle of minimalism.
There’s very little minimalism in it, by certain metrics. The line-up features 18 players, with sounds from violin, cello, piano, maracas, marimba, xylophone, metallophone, clarinet, bass clarinet and voice. Everything pulses and throbs, with an open invitation for all.
In a booklet essay for the new ECM Recordings set, Paul Griffiths writes, “It speaks of optimism and harmony and drive and progress.” It’s true – and it is worth noting how infrequently music that identifies as experimental or avant-garde takes brightness as a guide. Normally, the impulse is to challenge, to seek out disequilibrium. In Music for 18 Musicians, balance abounds.
As for its status in what would come to be known as minimalism, Reich explains, in his original liner notes for the album, an effect that defines the idea as well as any. He writes about repetition – repeating musical phrases over and over while changing other parts in relation to that repetition, which remains in a constant state.
The changing parts affect what the ear hears as an accent, like circling around a sculpture and seeing it from different perspectives and views. “Its effect, by change of accent,” Reich writes, “is to vary that which is in fact unchanging.”
Those choice few words elucidate repetition and musical minimalism as concisely as could be hoped for, and the hypnotic effect of varying that which is in fact unchanging would come to find outlets in music of all forms.
Hip-hop with its sampled loops, techno with its reiterative beats, modern pop that takes microscopic bits of musical material and hammers them into hooks – all of these owe parts of their DNA to minimalism of the kind that Reich helped define.
“Repetition is a sign of health,” writes Ben Ratliff in his recent book Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen in an Age of Musical Plenty. In a chapter on the subject, he considers what it means as an open-eared listener to take repetition on its own terms, to relate to it. Reich features, in reference to ways that “the valuing of repetition itself has become a shorthand sign of intelligence.” But so do songs by pop stars ranging from Kesha and Chic to swing-era maestros Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman.
“The best of what we call repetition in music, heard closely, is really the opposite of repetition: subtle differences, slowly shifting backgrounds, a change moving against a constant,” Ratliff writes, echoing Reich’s own notion but turning it inside-out.
In any case, in a dissection of a song by James Brown, Ratliff writes, “All good repetition in music is embodied by that demand: let me concentrate.”
Repetition figures heavily again in the second album on the ECM Recordings set – Octet/Music for a Large Ensemble/Violin Phase, from 1980 – but not as much in the third, Tehillim. For that one, released two years later, Reich turned to the idea of setting Biblical psalms into churning musical backing tracks made with electric organs, woodwinds, strings, percussion and voices singing expansive melodies of the composer’s own making.
“I use repetition as a technique when that is where my musical intuition leads me but I follow that musical institution wherever it leads,” Reich wrote of his stylistic migration in 1982.
A more recent Reich work with special resonance this year is WTC 9/11, a piece – not on the new box set but worth checking out – related to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. The composition was completed in 2010 but resounded again this fall on the 15th anniversary of that dark day, which Reich revisited via recordings of voices from emergency service workers at the time and interviews with friends and neighbours later. (Reich had an apartment four blocks away from where the World Trade Center stood.)
The music for WTC 9/11 is foreboding and dark, with strings taking the melodic form of the terror-stricken utterances of voices that are disembodied but intensely human in their helplessness. It’s a long way from Music for 18 Musicians, so boundless and open and bright. But the two projects, separated by more than three decades of musical inquisitiveness and ambition, evolved from the same octogenarian maestro in Steve Reich.
May they long endure in the way that Griffiths, in his notes for the ECM Recordings set, hears in Music for 18 Musicians. “Time, for once, is on our side, and the fade at the end of the recording,” he writes, “implies that its circlings, its beneficence, will go on forever.”
Andy Battaglia is a New York-based writer whose work appears in The Wall Street Journal, Frieze, The Paris Review and more.