Steve Reich Celebrated at 80

One of America's most vital living composers—New Yorker Steve Reich—turns 80 on October 3. In celebration, Deutsche Grammophon and ECM, two companies that greatly helped build Reich's reputation by recording his initially uncategorizable forays into minimalism, have reissued their seminal efforts. Given that all recordings feature members of the Steve Reich Ensemble (including the composer), and that Reich would not authorize performance and recordings of his work by others until 1990, the recordings are definitive (footnote 1).

From DG comes the 3-LP set, Steve Reich: Drumming, a reissue of its 1974 vinyl box that included Drumming (1970–71), Six Pianos, and Music for Mallet Instrument, Voices and Organ (both from 1973). From ECM, in turn, comes a 3-CD set, Steve Reich: The ECM Recordings. The latter, which I have auditioned, comes complete with a superb essay by Paul Griffiths, and original notes by Reich.

The ECM box begins with a recording that the label's producer, Manfred Eicher, rescued from the DG archives, Music for 18 Musicians (1974–1976). Another disc contains three shorter works: Octet (completed in 1979 and later recast for 14 musicians as Eight Lines), Music for a Large Ensemble (1978), and a work from his early "phase music" period, Violin Phase (1967). The third disc contains the final ECM Reich recording, the Jewish-influenced Tehillim (1981). Note that Violin Phase has never been re-recorded.

First, some history. From his initial emergence in the 1960s, after studies with Persichetti, Berio, and Milhaud at New York's Juilliard School and Oakland's Mills College, Reich began to work at the famed San Francisco Tape Music Center at 321 Divisadero Street alongside Oliveros, Subotnick, and Riley. (The San Francisco Tape Music Festival 2017, which continues the tradition, will take place at the same time as CES 2017). After his involvement in the premiere of Riley's In C, Reich's initial forays into minimalism centered, first and foremost, on shifting phase created by tape and then live performance delay.

Also central to Reich's oeuvre were the irresistible rhythms, clatter, and color of African percussion, Balinese gamelan, and then Jewish incantation and prayer. The influence of the first phase of America's civil rights struggle, the Holocaust, and a move toward internationalism can also be heard in some of his early works. Much later came WTC 9/11, written in commemoration of Twin Towers terrorist attack. From 1990 on, ensembles that include Kronos Quartet and Eighth Blackbird, and orchestras that include San Francisco Symphony, have figured prominently in premieres and performances of Reich's works.

About the famed ECM Recordings, much has already been written. Suffice to say that they confirm that Reich could convey the pulse and spirit of American urban life as brilliantly as Gershwin did 30 years earlier. Even the unity that arises from out of phase quasi-chaos is revelatory.

Recorded 1976–1981, the works' emphasis on percussive sounds makes for anything but soothing background listening. Judging from the CD transfers, which I believe were accomplished ca 2000, the recording engineers did little if anything to minimize the clatter or sweeten the experience.

It's all fabulous stuff. Although listening to multiple works in one sitting could possibly induce numbness—as with antihistamines and alcohol, do not operate heavy machinery while under the influence!—taken one at a time, they are as exhilarating as they are essential.

Footnote 1: An earlier collection, Works 1965–1995, was our "Recording of September 1997."—Ed.

volvic's picture

Have most of his works from DG may I also recommend Variations for Winds, Strings and Keyboard conducted by Edo De Waart and the SF Symphony from Philips. A must if you have never heard. Must seek out those ECM recordings.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

I think you may have your composers confused. Could you please supply the title of the recording?

volvic's picture

corrected, confused Reich with Glass in regards to the violin concerto. Still, if no one has heard that particular recording by Glass I do recommend it.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Thank you. Your recommendation of the Glass V.C. is a good one. I recall an old Telarc recording that paired the Glass and Adams Concertos. Definitely a winner.

volvic's picture

will seek that one out.