Monday, February 15, 2010

Steve Reich: Appreciations

This afternoon, I listened to The Desert Music (1984) by Steve Reich while falling asleep to take a nap on a work-free Presidents' Day. I hadn't heard it in over ten years but found it for a few bucks recently at one of the last (and best) used record stores in the Southland (Record Surplus on Pico).

One of the great triumphs of ECM Records — besides putting out some of Keith Jarrett's masterpieces of the 1970s and so much of Arvo Pärt's brilliant repertoire — was to have in its catalogue Reich's groundbreaking Music for 18 Musicians from 1978. Other notable Reich releases on ECM were his Octet/Music for a Large Ensemble/Violin Phase in 1980 and his setting of several Psalms in the 1982 recording of Tehillim, which was also one of the first — if not the first — of Reich's pieces coming out of his own immersion into Judaism. These three discs are probably my favorites, as they receive the most heavy rotation around the house, in the car, and in my head. Not too surprisingly, Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo has a similar penchant for the mesmerizing music of Reich. (Y'know, I always did like that Lee Ranaldo guy.)

The Desert Music, done for Elektra/Nonesuch, falls in the same aesthetic style as these other late 70s/early 80s works. It is relentlessly contrapuntal and pulsing. That's the Reich I love best, even more than his early tape-phase experiments like It's Gonna Rain and even more than some of his later works (with the exception of Daniel Variations in 2006, a haunting piece of music dedicated to the murdered journalist Daniel Pearl).

This is meditative but very active music, still stirring 26 years after it was composed (so much for my "nap"). I used to be more of a Philip Glass enthusiast in what I (and some others) perceived as a "rivalry" between these two New York minimalists. I remember even getting into something of an argument with someone over that non-issue. I think I even made the dubious claim that Glass's music was somehow more "emotional." (Funny enough, I first learned of Steve Reich in the liner notes of the Phil Glas/Ravi Shankar album Passages.) Now I don't take sides in such a pointless debate; I love 'em both. But I will say that it has been a while since I've spun Phil Glass on the turntable/CD player/iPod. Steve Reich has found his way to these places quite frequently and quite recently. For the uninitiated, The Desert Music is about as good a place to start as Music for 18 Musicians. Other great places to start:
  • Four Organs (1970)
  • Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ (1973)
  • Sextet/Six Marimbas (1986)
  • Different Trains (w/ Kronos Quartet) (1988)

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