Slow Motion Sound: A Bluffer’s Guide to Steve Reich

Sam Ribakoff writes about the career of the canonical American composer through the selection of four highlights.
By    November 14, 2018

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Sam Ribakoff can play every part of Plastic Haircut on kazoo.

If you peaked around at the Disney Concert Hall last weekend you could easily find composer Steve Reich sitting in the middle of the hall, dressed head to toe in black, hand to his mouth, pensively waiting for his new piece, Music for Ensemble and Orchestra, to begin.

Reich has been composing revolutionary experimental and orchestral music for decades by reintroducing rhythm, repetition, and slow moving harmonic texture to “serious art music.” He forced both musicians and composers stuck to seriously examine popular American and international styles of music — especially African and African-American music –as valid, exciting, and just as serious and complex as European classical music. As a result, it left the door open for non-classical musicians and producers to find their way into classical and orchestral music, and reimagine it in their own terms.

When he began messing around with phasing (where two or more instruments repeat musical lines first in sync, and then gradually shift apart in time, creating multiple weird and magical harmonies, beats, and undertones), it was seen as weird and radical.  But all radicals eventually get co-opted by the establishment they’re rebelling against, and that’s why Reich, nervous as ever, waited for his new piece to composition to appear at Disney Concert Hall.

Music For Ensemble and Orchestra shares a lot of the characteristics of Reich’s previous work: there are two vibraphones and two pianos to both keep a beat and establish a shifting phase pattern, but there’s also a small chamber orchestra of woodwinds, a small string section, and an electric bass. The piece moves like a lot of Reich’s more recent compositions — while the pianos and vibraphones lay that shifting phase foundation, the rest of the instruments take turns playing a melodic line, then another section will pick it up, and another section will offer a sweeping chord or a melodic stab, and back and forth for 15 minutes. It’s beautiful. If you close your eyes you can be swept away by the sweeping movements and the frenetic phase. An amazingly cultured eight-year old in front of me swayed back and forth the whole 15 minutes of the piece.

The piece will be performed in London and San Francisco before it’s hopefully recorded and released, but in the meantime, here’s four of Reich’s best compositions to get you acquainted with him:

It’s Gonna Rain (1965)

It’s San Francisco in the early 1960’s, past the heydey of the beatniks, before the arrival of the hippies. A group of experimental music weirdos and avant-garde art music nerds like Pauline Oliveros start an electronic music workshop called the San Francisco Tape Music Center where they can make noise with tapes and computers in peace. A lot of the early stuff that comes out of the Center sounds like people messing around making noise on antique computers. They were kids who grew up learning classical musicianship and composition trying to figure out what weird sounds they could coax out of computers, tape machines, and effects.

It was supposed to be music of the future, untethered to old Western ideas of musicality, although Egyptian composer Halim El-Dabh, and French composer Pierre Schaeffer had been making similarly sounding spliced sample collage music called Musique Concrete decades before. Future Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh was pulled to The Center by this radical vision of futuristic music — as was Steve Reich. Reich was interested in Western musical ideas though, especially the jazz of John Coltrane, the early rock R&B of Junior Walker, and lyrical classical music, and all the new shiny tape machines.

It’s Gonna Rain, one of Reich’s first compositions, was made in S.F. under the influence of The Center. Taking duplicates of a recording he made of a street preacher’s impassioned sermon about the apocalypse, Reich found that if he tried playing the duplicates in sync, one tape would eventually drift slightly out of sync from the other one, creating a disorienting, sometimes terrifying, phase effect, where the juxtaposition of the two tapes slowly coming apart and back together again revealed weird and different beats and harmonies in the preacher’s voice.

The idea of a phase, of identical musical themes separating by minute changes in time, and then coming back together, finding harmonies and musical texture in discordance, would be an idea that Reich would base his whole career as a composer around. But nothing in Reich’s catalog is as genuinely distressing as It’s Gonna Rain. The second part of piece envelops the preacher’s sermon so far into the phase and an added delay effect;  it sounds like he’s being ripped apart and enveloped by a black hole.


Four Organs (1970)

A year after It’s Gonna Rain, Reich made another tape phase composition from recorded spoken word called Come Out. Somehow it became one of Reich’s most accessible early pieces, inspiring a modern dance piece, a Madlib beat, and a JPEGMAFIA song. Weary of being pigeonholed as a tape music composer, after Come Out, Reich abandoned prerecorded tape loops, and tried to implement his phasing technique for live instruments. One of the first results was Piano Phase where two pianists start out playing the same 12 note line in unison, gradually coming apart in time, and then gradually coming back together.

In the beginning of the piece, what sounds like one piano echoing the other one gradually turns into the sounds of cats dancing on two pianos — which in itself gradually starts to turn into different harmonic and melodic undertones peeking through the chaos. If you watch a clip of people playing Piano Phase they look miserable. They’re either looking straight down at their hands, or dead eyed at the sheet music in front of them. The musical ability and mental fortitude needed to play the piece, to keep track of where you are as a musician in relation to your partner, the ability to nudge forward or nudge back in time to make the phase work, is an amazing feat.

While audiences attuned to European styled avant-garde music or classical music weren’t exactly in love with Reich, Piano Phase was a step towards “respectability” in the classical, “serious” art music sense. 1970’s Four Organs blew all that respectability up for awhile.

Reich has said in the past that he wanted his compositions to reflect and be in conversation with American life, history, and popular music and culture, not embossed pretentious art pieces. Four Organs is one of the first pieces that puts that philosophy into practice. Using Farfisa organs (the ones favored by psychedelic rock bands, and later the punk band Suicide), four organists and one maraca player slowly expand a single chord for 15 to 20 minutes, playing it for longer and longer durations as the piece progresses. If you can make it to the 13th minute, you’ll find yourself completely immersed in the chord, with every note added on sounding like a revelation from heaven.

Like a lot of Reich’s work, Four Organs sounds, and feels like no other music made before or since then. It’s vaguely spiritual sounding, almost like Reich was responding to psychedelic rock’s fascination with Indian spiritual music by taking rock and classical music a step farther into Eastern music, and classical music a step farther into rock music’s domain. By simply acknowledging and responding to popular music by using amplified rock organs as his compositional tool, and adding a rhythmic element in the form of the maracas, or as Reich called it, a “pulse,” Reich called out his peers in the art, avant-garde, and classical music world to actually pay attention to popular culture and American musical history, especially rhythm and beats. For that, people hated him.

At a performance of the piece at Carnegie Hall in 1973, three years after it was first performed, a woman walked to the front and reportedly started banging her head against the stage shouting “Stop! I confess!” If anything tells you you’re doing something right, it’s gotta be that.

The Desert Music (1983)

After Four Organs, Reich stepped back a little bit and continued doing live phase pieces with two acoustic instruments, and just bare hands like Clapping Music. Then he started adding more instruments to the phase; first, it was Six Pianos, then it became marimbas, organs, and women’s voices repeating the vowel sound “ee” for 17 minutes, which lead up to what a lot of people consider to be his masterpiece, Music for 18 Musicians, where marimbas, a chorus of human voices, and a small string and brass section explore 11 different chords for over an hour.

It sounds like a lot, but with Music for 18 Musicians, Reich dropped the confrontational stance of his older work and gave himself over to harmonic movement, tone, and emotion. Like a lot of his work from this period, you’re invited to get lost in the swaying, almost melancholic, harmonic patterns and little melodic movements of Music for 18 Musicians, always discovering new special moments of the piece when relisting. This was the beginning of Reich’s retooling of classical music orchestration. He’d use some of the instrumentation and orchestration of classical music, but reimagine it in his own image. Classical music with rhythm, movement, phasing, and repetition.

My favorite of this period of Reich’s career is The Desert Music. Made with an even bigger orchestra arrangement of a chorus section, a string section, a woodwind section, a brass section, and of course, marimbas and vibraphones, Reich found inspiration in a William Carlos Williams poem to create a maximalist exaltation of repetition and phasing. In the piece, like Music for 18 Musicians, the percussion instruments in the orchestra keep the pulse of the piece, while the chorus, and the orchestra weave in and out, synchronizing musical phrases, and repeating others out of sync to create a waves of harmonics that pass in and around the listener for 45 minutes.

Certain movements feel epic in scale and orchestration, especially with the haunting chorus echoing and moaning an excerpt from William Carlos Williams “Desert Music” through the piece like a Greek tragedy. Other movements feel as intimate and melancholy as a orchestra of massive size can be. In some movements Reich reaches back towards the pessemission and depression of his earlier works, only to lift them up through the power of rumbling brass, uplifting strings, or the chorus affirming Reich’s lifelong pursuit,

“it is a principle of music
to repeat the them. Repeat
and repeat again,
as the pace mounts. The
theme is difficult

but no more difficult
than the facts to be

Electric Counterpoint/Different Trains (1989)

The only other Reich piece to be sampled as much as Come Out, Electric Counterpoint brings the maximalist spectacle of The Desert Music down to a more minimalist size: one guitarist and 12 overdubbed guitar backing tracks.

Originally performed by jazz guitarist Pat Metheny, Electric Counterpoint builds crescendos of soothing waves of electric guitar ambiance from 12 different tiny arpeggio guitar parts that shift into and out of phase from each other — with one live guitar player adding that extra 13th guitar. In the “Slow” movement of the piece it sounds like watching a school of glittering rainbow fish plop in and out of the water.

For some reason, this balm of a composition was released in 1989 with another piece with a distinctly different vibe, Different Trains. Built around interviews Reich did with friends and family members, Different Trains juxtaposes the train trips that Reich, who is Jewish, took across the country as a kid to visit his separated parents, with the trains that took Jews to death camps in Nazi occupied Europe at the same time during the Holocaust.

Different Trains uses clips of voices from those interviews with the sounds of trains howling and peddling tracks as both rhythms and percussive emphasis in certain sections of the movement. Using the clipped dialogue from the interviews, the piece builds a sense of impending, and then immediate dread, as the interviewee’s start to list the years leading up to the Holocaust. We also here clips of Holocaust survivors talking about the impending Nazi invasion, and their deportation to death camps, with the music played by the string quartet amplifying their voices into almost opera. At this point the train noises become swirling ominous textures, that only break at the last quarter of the piece, “After the War,” where we return to the U.S., and the trains again become more about momentum and rhythm then death and destruction.             

After Different Trains Reich would do a few more compositions based around sampling speech as music, especially when he wanted to tackle cataclysmic historical moments, like WTC 9/11, and the little less deadly serious City Life, but nothing as viscerally and emotionally compelling as Reich’s reckoning with the Holocaust on Different Trains. With Different Trains, Reich again challenged the classical music world to not only reckon with modern history, but to also take seriously the power of new popular music, specifically the sampler, and hip hop as an important, and worth just as much admiration as classical music.

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