Steve Reich, the onetime outsider turned venerated new music master, turns 80 today – and to commemorate this milestone, here is the latest version of a discographical survey of Reich recordings that I started compiling umpteen years ago. The first version was published in the book The Essential Listening Companion: Classical Music (Backbeat Books, 2002), and I have been updating and expanding this essay ever since. Not all of these recordings are still in print, and some of the original labels were absorbed by bigger labels, so check Amazon.com or ArkivMusic.com for current availability.
Of all of the well-known so-called minimalist composers, Steve Reich not only made the most radical break with the Western music mainstream, he has so far created the most consistently enjoyable overall body of work.
There are three secrets to Reich’s appeal. The first is the irrepressible use of rhythm, rooted in the syncopations of jazz, gaining further richness through his studies of drumming in Ghana. His best compositions percolate and cook like a great jazz record – only without the improvisation. The second is that he comes up with consistently good musical ideas. A minimalist is only as good as his material – you have to present patterns that will hold the listener’s interest through all that repetition – and Reich somehow manages to choose exactly the right notes. The third is that unlike some over-prolific minimalists who seem to grab every assignment thrust before them, Reich has kept his output fairly limited in quantity – and as a result, there is a higher percentage of quality Reich per square foot.
And while we’re at it, here’s a fourth – he keeps re-inventing himself. Like Philip Glass, Reich first attracted notice with his most daring stuff, the early phasing pieces, and gradually worked his way toward mainstream concert life. But after getting a bit bogged down writing for orchestras, Reich turned his back upon that trend in the late `80s, shrank his forces back to chamber size, and bravely went back to the drawing board, experimenting with sampling and video installations, trying to invent new forms of docu-theatre. So far, the track record of his later works has been spotty, and he seems to have finally become set in his ways lately. Yet his fans always eagerly await his next move – and how many composers in any idiom still attract that kind of anticipation?
Reich in virtually all of his phases and stages from 1965 to 1995 can be experienced in Nonesuch’s giant compilation of most of this music for the label (Nonesuch, 10 CD); it’s out of print yet still can be found second-hand online. In time for his 80th birthday in 2016, Deutsche Grammophon reissued its pioneering boxed set of early Reich pieces on a three-LP boxed set with a reproduction of the original cover, and ECM gathered all of its early Reich material into its own three-CD package. If you just want to get these sets and be rid of much of the task of picking and choosing, I won’t stop you. Otherwise, read on …
Reich discovered phasing quite by accident when two tape loops that he had made of a San Francisco street preacher drifted out of phase. From that idea, he created It’s Gonna Rain, where the voice is distorted and multiplied until it sounds exuberantly chaotic. Then he achieved truly frightening results manipulating the words of a Harlem teenager in Come Out; at one point, the voices develop a demonic jazzy quality. These two tapes, first released on Columbia in the 1960s but later reissued on Nonesuch, remain to date Reich’s most radical pieces – and they are not for the fainthearted. The disc also contains a re-recording of Piano Phase and the totally self-contained Clapping Music.
Speaking of Piano Phase, this rigorous 1967 work was given a radical facelift in 2015 by the iconoclastic harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani, who adapted the two-piano piece for two period harpsichords, overdubbing one part over the other in a difficult yet neat trick of synchronization, the two instruments gradually drifting out of sync to create new textures before merging together again. To my ears, Piano Phase works much better for two harpsichords than it did in the original two-piano version due to the nature of the instruments. It’s sharper, clearer, brighter, and an even more startling experience than Reich probably imagined it could be (Deutsche Grammophon Archiv).
Clapping Music can also be found on the LSO Percussion Ensemble’s excellent all-Reich set, along with a grooving, syncopated, self-explanatory piece from the early 1970s, Music For Pieces Of Wood (LSO Live). Third Coast Percussion also has a recording of Pieces of Wood but uses a louder, more resonantly ringing set of of purpleheart slats (Cedille).
In Violin Phase, Paul Zukofsky’s abrasively hypnotic performance (Columbia) has been gone for decades, leaving the field to Shem Guibbory’s faster, lighter rendition (ECM) and Jagdish Mistry’s swift, somewhat slick recent recording (RCA). In 2001, guitarist Dominic Frasca turned the piece into Electric Guitar Phase, and thus completely altered its impact; it comes close to hard-driving rock `n’ roll now (Nonesuch).
Four Organs, which swaps phasing for augmentation as a maracas beats time against the increasingly sustained sounds of four electric organs, received its premiere recording (Shandar) at the Guggenheim Museum with a historic ensemble containing both Reich and Philip Glass (they had a falling out soon thereafter). Bang On A Can’s sleeker, slightly slower rendition can be found on Nonesuch, and there is a crisper recording from the 1970s featuring the unlikely all-star quartet of conductor/keyboardist Michael Tilson Thomas, studio ace Ralph Grierson, jazz virtuoso Roger Kellaway and Reich himself (EMI/Angel).
Reich’s phasing phase, so to speak, reached its apotheosis in Drumming, which more than 40 years later, sounds like a masterpiece. Anywhere from 55 to 90 minutes in length, depending upon observance of repeats, the piece gradually shifts from one percussion group to another in a masterly arch; indeed, the transition from the drums to the marimbas and voices (Part I to Part II) is a magical moment in new music. Steve Reich and Musicians made two recordings for major labels: I prefer the first one (Deutsche Grammophon, 2 CD), which is longer, slower, and has an ecstatic, ethereal ambience that eludes the more hectic, much shorter remake (Nonesuch), The energetic, hypnotic So Percussion version, which includes more of the repeats and several revelations of inner detail, takes its overall cue from the second Reich recording – and thus also proves less entrancing than the DG (Cantaloupe).
Beginning with Six Pianos, Reich abandoned phasing and started to develop an additive technique introduced on Drumming, one that would greatly increase the rhythmic element in his music, bringing it closer to the feeling of jazz syncopation. Six Pianos has plenty of vitality in the original version (Deutsche Grammophon, 2 CD), and a more percussive, brighter, noticeably different balance in the recording by Piano Circus (Argo). But Reich’s trimming and re-scoring of the piece under the name Six Marimbas (Nonesuch) has an even more swinging feeling. Music For Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ channels the processes of Four Organs and Six Pianos into a mellower continuum; the Steve Reich and Musicians remake (Nonesuch) is crisper and more detailed than their laid-back first recording (Deutsche Grammophon, 2 CD).
Music For 18 Musicians was Reich’s popular breakthrough, and in some ways, this hour-long journey remains his most beautiful piece. Now he introduces shifting harmonies, comes up with some great syncopated ideas for repetition, and the whole thing flows like a dream; it makes great cruising music for a long highway trip. Reich’s first recording has a mellow, gauzy, delicate ambience and an understated drive that gradually seduces you (ECM). His remake is longer (but not slower), balanced in a completely different way, tougher in sections, smoother in others, more uninhibitedly aware of the swinging jazzy pulse (Nonesuch). The Ensemble Modern became the first group other than Reich’s own to perform this piece, and though at first you can sense a touch of stiffness, the precise Germans ultimately play it really well (RCA), at times indistinguishably from Reich’s bands. In the 21st century, Ensemble Signal under Brad Lubman winningly captures the swinging spirit of the second Reich ensemble recording; indeed, the performance comes with an endorsement by the composer – “Fast moving, spot on and emotionally charged. Take a listen,” he writes (Harmonia Mundi).
Music For a Large Ensemble, a tuneful extension of the techniques used in Music For 18 Musicians, exists in two recorded versions. There is the more-or-less original edition by the Steve Reich Ensemble (ECM) – which Reich says was “modified” at the recording session – and a slightly stiffer re-orchestrated version by Alan Pierson, who leads the groups Alarm Will Sound and Ossia (Nonesuch).
The bouncy, lightweight Eight Lines was originally called Octet, but Reich altered the instrumentation and renamed it; in either guise, it became Reich’s most recorded work for awhile. The sole recording labeled Octet is by the rhythmically buoyant Steve Reich and Musicians (ECM), still the best choice of these four versions of Eight Lines. Flutist Ransom Wilson (EMI) does some re-arranging, expanding to 25 players, adding double bass, favoring mobile rhythms, weightier strings, and of course, the flute. Christopher Warren-Green and the London Chamber Orchestra double the string contingency from four to eight players, yet their performance lacks rhythmic definition (Virgin). The Ensemble Modern under Brad Lubman also uses eight strings, whisking along at a fast pace (RCA). The Bang On A Can version, also led by Lubman, (Nonesuch) follows Reich’s lean original scoring but could use springier rhythms.
The outer portions of the Sextet for pianos and percussion flow with irresistible mechanistic and jazzy energy, though The Desert Music casts a powerful shadow. The original recording by Steve Reich and Musicians can be found on Nonesuch while for the occasion of Reich’s 80th birthday in 2016, the LSO Percussion Ensemble (LSO Live) and especially the bold, boomy, more opulent-sounding Third Coast Percussion (Cedille) provide some contrast with the lighter-textured (and in the outer movements, noticeably faster) Reich recording. All are worth hearing for their variations on the basic groove.
Orchestral and Choral Works
As minimalism became a big deal in cultural circles in the 1980s, even Reich felt the pull toward writing for conventional orchestras. His first attempt, Variations for Winds, Strings and Keyboards – written for and recorded by Edo de Waart and the San Francisco Symphony (Philips) – is a gauzy expanse of pretty busywork where Reich’s rhythmic impulse is smoothed over.
But The Desert Music, an orchestral/ choral setting of William Carlos Williams poetry, is a 50-minute work of imagination and vitality, evoking a fast-car journey through the deserts of the West (though Williams’s poems do not). Stoked by engines of maracas and mallet instruments, driven by Michael Tilson Thomas’s energetic conducting of Reich’s ensemble and the Brooklyn Philharmonia (Nonesuch), the varying rhythmic grooves manage to lift and carry the added weight. In 2001, Reich made an at-times radical revision of the piece for chamber group, which Pierson and Alarm Will Sound and Ossia take at a faster clip (Cantaloupe).
From here on, though, Reich seems to lose interest in the orchestra as a vehicle to explore new directions. Three Movements (Nonesuch) is a warmed-over return to Desert Music and Sextet country with hardly a striking new idea; the second movement is basically a superfluous orchestration of the Sextet’s fourth movement. The Four Sections (Nonesuch) is full of ideas, beginning with a long, heavy, lyrical, un-Reichian passacaglia for strings, followed by a movement each for percussion and winds before finally starting the engines. The problem is that Reich’s distinct sound world is mostly lost and conventionalized. Tilson Thomas leads the LSO in both recordings.
Tehillim was another breakthrough for Reich; besides being his first published setting of a text, it marked the beginning of his preoccupation with his Jewish heritage. It’s a joyous, easily-assimilated setting of four Psalms, with highly-syncopated rhythms dictated by the Hebrew text and wide-spaced vocal lines for female quartet. Steve Reich and Musicians play the chamber version with a lightness of touch and thrusting rhythms, a marvelous performance but poor value at only 30 minutes for the disc (ECM). Although a bit earthbound by comparison, Reinbert de Leeuw and the Schönberg Ensemble do get the basic idea, and it is coupled with Three Movements (Nonesuch). Alan Pierson and Alarm Will Sound and Ossia play it faster, with a terrific amount of youthful drive (Cantaloupe).
Some two decades later, Reich came up with a choral sequel to Tehillim called You Are (Variations) – same four-movement structure, same fast-fast-slow-fast tempo scheme, same half-hour length, same syncopated repetition idea, similar setting of a Hebrew text, – but like many sequels, it sounds forced, lacking the audacious spark of the original (Nonesuch). Daniel Variations is a sequel to the sequel with a lot of the same parameters, but here the musical invention is somewhat higher, and the text – based on words from the Book Of Daniel and murdered American journalist Daniel Pearl – carries more emotional resonance for audiences up on current events. The piece sounds surprisingly claustrophobic in these studio conditions, not nearly as moving as when heard live in Los Angeles’ Walt Disney Concert Hall prior to the session, but maybe that was the point (Nonesuch). Grant Gershon directs members of the superb Los Angeles Master Chorale in both pieces.
Later Chamber Works:
Once Reich had gotten orchestral music out of his system, he took off in a totally new direction with Different Trains for the Kronos Quartet, sampled voices and train sounds. In contrasting the trains of his childhood with those headed for concentration camps in Europe, Reich created an overwhelmingly powerful work which has a deeply emotional edge rare in new music (Nonesuch). City Life for 18-piece chamber ensemble also uses sampled sound effects – played rhythmically on keyboards – but this time, Reich keeps his emotional distance and gives us a somewhat turgidly bleak portrait of New York City, whether on his own recording (Nonesuch) or the gleaming, brighter-timbred rendition of Ensemble Modern (RCA).
Triple Quartet, scored for three string quartets or one quartet and pre-recorded tape, seizes upon the dissonant energy of the middle section of Different Trains and inserts a moody, blurred Hebraic-flavored movement in the center; it’s a piece that grows in stature upon repeated hearings (Nonesuch). A set of Variations for Vibes (2), Pianos (4) and Strings (three string quartets) came about in 2005, a buoyant three-movement piece that in the brief final movement recaptures the jazzy elan of Reich’s earlier chamber works (Nonesuch).
Double Sextet from 2007 stays in what became Reich’s comfort zone in later years – a fast-slow-fast, three-movement, chamber concerto structure – with driving piano and vibraphone underneath sustained chords in the outer movements and a meditative inner movement. Why this worthy yet not exceptional piece was singled out for a Pulitzer above Reich’s earlier, more revolutionary works is something that many Reich fans – and even Reich himself – found puzzling, although a great live performance by eighth blackbird and members of the San Francisco Symphony in Sept. 2016 took it to a hitherto unsuspected higher level. On its CD, eighth blackbird chooses to have six players overdubbing on a recording of themselves playing the other six parts (Nonesuch) while Lubman/Ensemble Signal’s recording (Harmonia Mundi) uses twelve players, but there is hardly any difference between them.
2×5 (2008) operates on the same time scale, same fast-slow-fast structure, similar double ensemble (10 pieces) and all that, but Reich breaks with his usual all-acoustic instrument layout and uses a rock band – electric guitars, electric bass, grand piano, drum kit. Not much else is new (the rhythm in the last section sounds almost like a rigidly stuttering bossa nova) as five members of Bang on A Can overdub themselves, wielding their electric instruments with classical precision (Nonesuch).
Mallet Quartet (2009) for two vibraphones and two five-octave marimbas is yet another fast-slow-fast job chugging along on its ostinatos and canons in the outer movements, with a static, laid-back inner movement. Nonesuch provides two separate performances by So Percussion, one on DVD and another recorded later on CD; the video performance is instructive for those curious about who plays what and where, while the audio one sounds a bit mellower in attack (Nonesuch, CD/DVD). Third Coast Percussion offers better sound, sharper definition in the vibes, more resonant lows in the marimbas, and more propulsion and drama. Give them the edge, even without a video (Cedille).
Like John Adams, Reich had something to say about the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center in New York, but waited until 2010 to say it. WTC 9/11 begins ominously with the beeping of a landline telephone off the hook, setting the rhythm for a grim successor to both Different Trains and Triple Quartet. As in the former, sampled voices, this time from the tragedy and its aftermath are used, and as in the latter, one string quartet (the ever-ready Kronos) plays over a pre-recorded tape of two other quartets. The musical invention this time strikes me as rather arid but that shortcoming is overcome by the inevitable strong emotions generated by the subject (Nonesuch).
Radiohead was one of a number of rock bands that were listening hard to Reich in their formative years, and in Radio Rewrite (2014), Reich returns the favor by imbedding fragments and harmonies from two Radiohead songs into a palindromic structure (fast-slow-fast-slow-fast) of the usual jagged syncopations and periods of repose. The Radiohead influence is felt melodically at times, yet it doesn’t fundamentally alter Reich’s late-period rhetoric one iota, nor does it freshen it, really. There are two good recordings, the first by Alan Pierson and the 11-person Alarm Will Sound (Nonesuch) and another by Brad Lubman – who led the live world premiere – and Ensemble Signal (Harmonia Mundi).
As showcases for favored soloists, Reich started a “counterpoint” series in which the soloist makes a tape of multiple parts and then plays over that tape in live performance. Vermont Counterpoint for flutist Ransom Wilson (EMI) has a deliciously light, bubbly quality. As befitting its instrument, the clarinet, New York Counterpoint develops a jazzy sense of swing that evokes the big band era. Here, the dedicatee Richard Stoltzman remains the swaggering champ (RCA), outpointing Alain Damien’s staccato elegance (Virgin), Evan Ziporyn’s somewhat square version (Nonesuch) and Roland Diry’s even more stiff-jointed attempt (RCA). Electric Counterpoint for electric guitars and basses has attractive folk/rock rhythmic elements, as well as the best harmonic and melodic ideas in the series, all deftly handled by jazz guitarist Pat Metheny (Nonesuch) while Radiohead’s guitarist Jonny Greenwood gives it a somewhat harder-edged, less-swinging performance (Nonesuch). All three pieces make delightful listening. By contrast, 2003’s Cello Counterpoint – playable either as a cello octet or live with seven pre-recorded cellos (as Maya Beiser chose to record it) – is a somber, high-tension piece of work, which is consistent with Reich’s increasingly serious-minded bent in his senior years (Nonesuch). Those hooked on this series might also want to check out Tokyo/Vermont Counterpoint, a transformed version of the flute piece for MIDI marimbas by Mika Yoshida that seems to chuckle as it goes (Nonesuch).
Alas, Reich’s multimedia magnum opus The Cave (Nonesuch, 2 CD) doesn’t work on CD, even though the whole piece – essentially a video oratorio – is quite effective in the theatre. Meditating on the story of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Hagar and Ishmael, coupled with interviews where, as in Tehillim, speech rhythms are set to music, Reich’s score is a dour, static audio experience; you can’t experience how tightly the music cues in Beryl Korot’s quick-changing images on the five video screens.
Likewise, the next Reich/Korot video oratorio Three Tales – a trilogy of meditations on man’s attempts to challenge nature through technology in the 20th century – loses a lot in the translation to CD (Nonesuch, CD/DVD). Again, Reich’s latter-day manner of slavishly cueing a video of quick jump-cuts and typed messages with music sounds stiff and stilted when separated from the visuals. The CD version of “Hindenburg” opens with a minimalist homage to the Nibelungen anvils in Das Rheingold; the rest is fairly turgid. “Bikini” is completely turgid, while at least “Dolly” has a nightmarish verve running through its score. Methinks that Reich/Korot are taking themselves much, much too seriously. This time, though, with the advent of new playback technology and perhaps with the shortcomings of The Cave in mind, Nonesuch provides a companion DVD in the package that presents the entire audio/visual work, including two sections of “Hindenburg” (one a deleted outtake) that are not on the CD.
Proverbs, which Reich called “a pit stop” in his career, is an anomaly, deploying the neutral, early-music Theatre Of Voices against pairs of vibraphones and organs, an austere, innocent-sounding bone thrown to the fans of the fashionable neo-medieval troika of Pärt, Tavener and Gorécki (Nonesuch).
And what is one to make of Reich Remixed, (Nonesuch), where this most stringent control freak of composers allows various DJs to electronically alter and refashion his music into entirely new bite-sized pieces. Well, I thought it was great fun to hear this pop-flavored afterthought after running through Reich’s entire corpus – especially the “Megamix” where Electric Counterpoint becomes a running subtext for a long string of Reich quotes. Don’t miss it.