In early '80s, I stopped at a colleague's home for a beer. Looking through his small collection of Styx and Huey Lewis records, I saw an anomaly: a Steve Reich LP, "Octet, Music for Large Ensemble, Violin Phase." I'd never heard of him, but the sheet-music cover and ECM label made it seem promising. I put it on right then and heard a machine-like stream of sound I'd never experienced before: xylophones and marimbas and strings repeating clusters of notes, long pulses of wind instruments, and other sounds I couldn't identify. Twenty minutes later I told my friend I was taking the album home, and I never did give it back. I've been enamored with Reich since that day.
Reich has been composing since the '60s, and he returns often to certain inspirations which find their expression in new ways. Some of his earliest pieces involved a process called phasing, using a short snippet of found speech. Two identical fragments are played in unison, then one is slowly moved out of phase, creating unusual musical and "psychoacoustic" effects. He then used this technique with written music, creating Piano Phase and Violin Phase. Clapping Music is a phasing piece he wrote for two percussionists to play with no instruments. After his study of percussive music in Ghana and gamelan in Bali, he took this idea further and wrote Drumming, a long piece for small drums, marimbas, glockenspiel, voices, and a piccolo. After this, he was less interested in using the process, though he did write Electric Guitar Phase many years later.
Though not employing phasing, the use of short, densely interconnected phrases led to more complex works with larger ensembles. The best known from this period is Music for 18 Musicians, a modern masterpiece. In this and other similar pieces, the instruments -- including hammered instruments, pianos, strings, woodwinds, and voices -- play patterned, percussive figures while other instruments hold long notes like drones. It all creates a kind of shimmering, trancelike presence that doesn't move melodically as most Western classical music does, but is still wonderfully expressive and satisfying. The work is played without a conductor, and was originally performed by Reich's ensemble without a score, with section changes marked by musical cues.
Another shift in his music occurred with his seeming rediscovery of words, as he set spoken and sung phrases to music; this period seemed to coincide with an exploration of Jewish themes. Different Trains, another Reich masterpiece, is an especially powerful work that draws on these techniques, combining a string quartet (played by Kronos Quartet in the original), sound effects, and short phrases recorded from interviews Reich performed. In the first movement, train whistles and crossing bells mix with taped spoken fragments (each doubled by a solo instrument) of train porters and passengers remembering train travel in the US before WWII. In the second movement, set in Europe, the train whistles become air raid sirens, and the voices are from holocaust survivors describing their very different and harrowing train experiences in Europe during WWII. Reich had incorporated sung texts before this, in works like Tehillim and The Desert Music, but Different Trains added an emotional depth that the music and sounds helped to amplify.
In another emotionally rich composition, Reich and his wife, the video artist Beryl Korot, collaborated on The Cave, a large-scale installation/opera that explores the story of Abraham as the father of Judaism and Christianity (through his child Isaac, by his wife Sarah) and Islam (through her maid Hagar and her child Ishmael, both of whom Sarah banishes). We hear the voices of Jews in Israel, Muslims in Palestine, and Americans (who mostly seem uninformed of the importance of the story, regardless of their religion). Typewriter sounds, sung Bible verses, sampled interview fragments, and prayers in Hebrew and Arabic feature throughout, all of which are seen in related videos. A large 3x3 structure, rather like the Hollywood Squares set, houses the live musicians and the video screens. As far as I can tell, no performance video of this work survives.
Reich again used this process of building a large piece around found samples and a central theme in City Life and Three Tales. The idea of working with samples is also found in several instrumental works for one or more musicians to play against multiple tape loops, often called "Counterpoints." One example is Electric Counterpart, commissioned and played by Pat Metheny on electric guitar (and later sampled in the Orb's Little Fluffy Clouds), and there are others written for instruments like clarinet, flute, cello, and piano. Triple Quartet (commissioned by Kronos Quartet) and the recent Double Sextet (which won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize) are for larger ensembles.
At 74, Reich continues to create valuable new compositions, and I see I've fallen behind. The Daniel Variations is a vocal work written in tribute to Daniel Pearl, the reporter kidnapped and executed in Pakistan in 2002. WTC 9/11 for String Quartet and Tape is a 2010 work about which I know nothing -- maybe I should go to its New York premiere next year!
Here's a short piece called Nagoya Marimbas, and below that Part 1 of an informative documentary of Reich on the South Bank Show, with appearances by Brian Eno, Michael Tilson Thomas, Kronos, and others.
Here's a much more thorough and interesting documentary on Reich from The South Bank Show, in six parts on YouTube.