Some music—like, say, Emil Gilels performing Beethoven’s Waldstein sonata or Ben Webster playing “Old Folks” or Al Green singing “Jesus Will Fix It”—transports you to another place. Other music, like this, transforms the space around you.
Steve Reich, “Music for 18 Musicians” (1974-76)
Excerpt (beginning), live, Cincinnati, 2008
Excerpt, recording (Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble)
Excerpt (ending), live, Tokyo, 2008
I first encountered Steve Reich’s music in 1971, while in college and living for a few months in New York. At a concert at New York University, I heard Reich and his ensemble perform his then-new piece “Drumming.” Stunning, mesmerizing, it was unlike anything my 19-year-old ears had ever heard.
The other day, I watched as Steve Reich walked away from Carnegie Hall, where celebrations of his seventieth birthday were under way, and out into his native city. Trim and brisk, he darted into West Fifty-seventh Street, fell back before oncoming traffic, bopped impatiently in place, then darted forth again. He soon disappeared into the mass of people, his signature black cap floating above the crowd. Perhaps I should have lamented the fact that one of the greatest living composers was moving around New York unnoticed, but lamentation is not a Reichian state of mind, and I thought instead about how his work has blended into the cultural landscape, its repeating patterns and chiming timbres detectable all over modern music. Brian Eno, David Bowie, David Byrne, and a thousand d.j.s have paid him heed. On Fifty-seventh Street, Reich-inflected sounds may have been coursing through the headphones of a few oblivious passersby.
Three decades ago, New York’s leading institutions would have nothing to do with Reich. A riot broke out when Michael Tilson Thomas presented “Four Organs” at Carnegie in 1973: one woman tried to stop the concert by banging on the edge of the stage with her shoe. Now uptown is lionizing the longtime renegade.
Reich changed music, and he also changed how music relates to society. In the face of early incomprehension, he took a do-it-yourself approach to getting his work before the public. Nonclassical musicians were among his models: he saw John Coltrane some fifty times, and marvelled at how the great man would unleash mind-bending sounds, pack up his sax, and disappear into the night. With his namesake ensemble, Reich performed in galleries, clubs, and wherever else he felt welcome. The effects of this paradigm shift can be seen on any day of the week in New York, as composer-led ensembles proliferate.
The Reich ensemble retains most of its original members, and they remain an awesome force, even as shaggy hairdos have given way to dignified shocks of white. At Zankel Hall, they played Part I of “Drumming,” a phase-shifting tour de force in which bongos are struck with sticks. I was curious to see how they would compare with two sharp young ensembles who had performed the same stretch of music in recent weeks—So Percussion, at Symphony Space, and four Juilliard percussionists, at Carnegie. The youngsters drummed with effortless grace, as if the score were written into their genetic code. But the veterans more than held their own, bringing to bear a kind of disciplined wildness, in the spirit of the Ghanaian drummers with whom Reich studied before he wrote the piece. The energy that blazed up at climactic moments could have powered the hall in a blackout.