The New Reich: Steve Reich June 9, 1975

Last December I wrote a piece about David Behrmann in which I suggested that he was only one of many composers who were turning away from minimalist styles and writing busier music. At the time I offered the observation more as a hypothesis than a fact, but in the intervening months, the decline of minimalism has become more and more clear. Only a few years ago there were many composers, particularly around New York, who made long pieces out of single ideas, but now it is hard to think of even one whom I could call a minimalist in any very stringent sense of the term. Along with Behrman, Sergio Cervetti, Rhys Chatham, Harley Gaber, Philip Glass, Charlemagne Palestine, Terry Riley, Laurie Spiegel, and La Monte Young all seem to me to be pretty clear-cut examples of former minimalists. It’s strange how an approach to music can be so popular for a while, and then just vanish.

Another dramatic case of a minimalist turning away from minimalism is Steve Reich. Reich’s latest work, which I heard at the Kitchen on May 24, has none of the brashness of his earlier works. It makes no attempt to be revolutionary or press points, and I doubt that it would be offensive to even the most conservative listeners. All of which is probably a good thing as far as most people are concerned, and the shift can be explained as a natural part of artistic growth. Still, in Reich’s case, there’s something that bothers me about the change in his work. Not that the new ‘Work in Progress for 21 Musicians and Singers’ isn’t a good piece. It’s quite lovely to listen to, and there seems to be a fair amount of substance underneath all the pretty sounds. But I miss the strength, toughness, and severity which characterized the unrelenting logic of his monochromatic scores such as ‘Four Organs.’ I even miss the repetition and the predictability.

Sometimes Reich’s finest work, ‘Drumming,’ might seem a bit dry and unexciting while listening to it, but when it’s all over one has really experienced something, and it’s impossible to forget it. The new work is far more titillating, and it has good craftsmanship and all that, and I enjoyed hearing it. But after the concert was over I started wondering, so what? Is music going to be any different because of a piece like this?

I guess the real problem for me is that I’ve always thought of Reich as a progressive, forward-looking composer. He was in the vanguard of hypnotic, obsessive, minimal music, and his way of bringing African elements into Western music was one of the most successful attempts at cultural mixing I have heard. And in all these respects, I think his work has proved to be an influence on other composers. Now most of that seems to be over. He is settling into a comfortable way of working, which is highly musical and will no doubt find a much larger audience than ‘Four Organs’ or ‘Six Pianos’ ever will. It’s good music, and maybe I’ll appreciate it more once I’ve gotten used to Reich’s idiom, and stopped worrying about it’s lack of chutzpah.

The new work is to be a 12-section piece lasting over an hour, though only about 35 minutes of it were presented at this performance. Like most Reich works, it is a diatonic piece, but it is more concerned with harmony than the earlier things. Each section focuses on a special group of, say, four or five notes, and much care is taken in choosing which ones to put in the bass. Much of the time the sonorities are voiced in lush major-seventh-chord sounds which remind me of cocktail lounges, and there is much finesse in the way everything is orchestrated.

The essence of the piece has grown naturally out of Reich’s last large work ‘Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ,’ which he premiered two years ago. In that piece he was already moving away from monochromatic music, and working with a variety of instruments which played sustained and melodic materials as well as rippling eighth-note figures. In the new work, his palette has expanded even more. Along with the mallet instruments and sustained female voices, there are four pianos, which hammer out dense rich chords, and two strings and two clarinets, which color the sound in a variety of ways. In some sections the clarinetists play bass clarinets, providing strong muddy bass tones. The intricate African-derived cross-rhythms, which were the essence of ‘Drumming,’ are present in the new piece too, though one hardly notices them in the midst of all the harmonies and colors. And Reich’s easy-going continuity, which always used to happen in slow subtle increments, is pretty much abandoned here too. One section is interrupted sporadically by loud vibraphone figures, which stand out almost like fanfares.

Over everything is a pall of lushness, which seems closer to Ravel or Mahler than to ‘Come Out’ or ‘Music for Pieces of Wood.’ But if that sounds like I’m demeaning the work, and it probably does, let me say once again that I’m not questioning the actual merit of the music. Reich is a careful worker with a good ear and a strong mind, and he never does shoddy work, especially when he spends two years working up to a piece, as he did in this case. I’m merely reacting to the sharp stylistic change he’s going through, and wondering whether I like the idea of going back to some kind of romanticism, and feeling a little sorry that the era of New York minimalism has come to such an abrupt end.


This was an early version of Music for 18 Musicians.