Recording of September 1997: Reich: Works 1965-1995

Steve Reich: Works 1965-1995
Double Edge, Bang On a Can, Kronos Quartet, Steve Reich and Musicians, Pat Metheny, Schönberg Ensemble with Percussion Group The Hague, London Symphony Orchestra, The Steve Reich Ensemble, etc. Judith Sherman, Rudolph Werner and Steve Reich, prod. Paul Goodman, Dick Lewzey, John Kilgore, Rob Eaton, Les Brockman, Simon Rhodes, and Hans Bedecker, eng. DDD. TT: 10:42:06.
Performance ****
Sonics ****

Steve Reich's 30-year career is no stuck record. Here is an artist with strong opinions, who has forged a new direction and, in the process, launched a style as revolutionary as the introduction of harmony to classical music. Despite their love it or hate it style, Reich and his minimalist cohorts did revitalize and re-connect the near-moribund art form of contemporary classical music.

In commercial terms, Reich was also the first new music composer to have his latest work recorded and distributed on a major record label, and was among the first to sell recordings of "serious music" in the same volume as pop records.

At the heart of Reich's work are the twin notions of harmony and pulsation. The same can be said of most, if not all, of the minimalists. But Reich's drive was fueled initially by four major influences - two intentional, two accidental. The intentional influences were his observations of African and Indonesian traditional musics. Reich was fascinated by both traditions' use of cycles within cycles to generate complexity and variety.

The first accident was his discovery of "phase" music while using two cheap tape recorders to listen to identical tape loops (segments of magnetic recording tape spliced end-to-end so that a single sound element would repeat infinitely). He had intended to create a specific pattern by layering one section of a speech by Pentecostal preacher Brother Walter saying "It's Gonna Rain." But because the playback speeds differed slightly, the two gradually slipped out of synchronization, at first sounding like an echo and eventually becoming a wash of unintelligible sound, then, if allowed to repeat long enough, re-aligning again. It's a variation on the historic western art music practice of canon, but Reich's intuitive leap offered mesmerizing new vistas. Think of it as "canon meets relativity."

The other "accident" was an observation of psychoacoustics. If a listener hears two instruments of "identical" timbre (ie, pairs of violins, marimbas, organs, etc.) playing at the same strength, the mind will perceive them as being one.

Nonesuch's reasonably priced ($100 list) 10-CD set is an ambitious and highly successful reappraisal of Reich's opus. Sonically, these new digital recordings are superior, illuminating the textural clarity and crisp articulations that define Reich's work. In terms of completeness, the set lives up to its promise, chronologically detailing the composer's lineage from his earliest tape phase pieces (It's Gonna Rain and Come Out) through 1995's Pérotin-modeled Proverb.

The early works are as powerful as they are primary-color simplistic. In 1967's "Piano Phase," for example, two pianos render identical dancing modal melodies, one ever-so-slightly faster than the other. Gradually they part company, turning into exercises of jumping physics. The sound shimmers and sizzles as the musical patterns refract, amplify and cancel one another in rhythmic and acoustic space.

Four Organs (1970) is Reich at his streamlined best, elaborating a single chord as asymmetrical lines that gradually spread and interact in blocky, piercing blasts. The crisp recording accents its rainbow harmonic colors, while the rhythmic precision and sureness of the performance leave the old Angel recording in the dust.

Drumming (1971) takes up all of disc two, but is still a considerably pared-down version compared to the 1974 Deutsche Grammophon recording (56'44" vs DG's 85'11"). An extended phase work based on lattices of rhythm constructed with subtle shifts in emphasis and strength, each of its four movements is a study in instrumental color, from mallets on skins to marimbas and voices, tuned metallic percussion and marimbas, bongos and piccolos. Almost a ritual piece, its chord changes remain slow but powerful and its vibrant quality stands the test of time.

The new rendition of Reich's highly-popular (selling over 100,000 copies) Music For 18 Musicians makes for an interesting point of comparison with ECM's 1978 recording. The Nonesuch CD offers greater clarity and presence, and a precision that creates springboard tension. It is fatter and warmer-sounding as well. The ECM recording is soft-focused by comparison, yet it has more personality and a sense of excitement in discovery.

As he made the transition from the late 1970s into the early '80s, Reich's "primary color" approach to pure harmonies gave way to more muted and discordant harmonies and greater sophistication in his use of color, contrast, texture and blend. This is particularly true in 1979's Eight Lines and 1981's Tehillim.

Tehillim is a landmark work in which the hypnotized dreamer of the past awakens in radiance to new possibility. It is also the first important work in Reich's own re-awakening to his Jewish heritage. A setting of Psalms for four voices, piccolo, flute, oboe, English horn, two clarinets, six percussionists, two electric organs, two violins, viola, cello, and bass, it uses both canonic principles and the irregular rhythms of the text to generate complex metric impulses. Despite Nonesuch' greater sonic transparency, the electricity of ECM's 1982 recording and the superior quality of the ECM vocalists gives it the edge. Bang On a Can's performance of Eight Lines, by contrast, is not to be missed. Spirited, crisp and energetic, it nails the piece for its full potency.

With Different Trains (1988), Reich arrives at the next major leap in his career. A powerful political piece with autobiographical overtones, it draws upon recorded speech of survivors of the Holocaust who recall train trips in the years preceding, during, and after World War II. Here Reich begins to pattern his melodic material on the rise and fall of digitally-sampled speech, using those fragments and the sound of train whistles to generate a gear-shifting, emotional journey, deftly rendered by the Kronos Quartet.

Reich carried the concept too far in The Cave (1993), allowing speech melodies to dictate the bulk of the two-CD theater piece for video and live performers. But in the single-CD edited version that appears in this set, one could be fooled into believing there was considerable variety and development in this study of the global understanding and perception of the common roots of Judeo-Christian and Islamic theologies. In fact, this version is downright likable.

The flaw of The Cave is rectified in City Life (1994) as Reich begins to musically develop melodic ideas generated from bits of urban speech. All this bodes well for Reich's next project—a look at technology and disaster slated to be completed around the close of the century.

Though a few major works are left out and not every performance here is sterling, Nonesuch's ambitious traversal of three decades of Steve Reich's career underscores his importance in the second half of this century. Even those who have prior recordings of his works should consider purchasing the set.—Dan Buckley