New York

Steve Reich

Loeb Student Center

The musical compositions of Steve Reich serve as an excellent example of an ordered system that undergoes almost no alteration in the actual execution of the work. In other words, once Reich decides on the so-called mathematics employed in each composition, the performers mechanically carry out the orchestration according to this predetermined structure—that is, a straightforward, nonimprovised reading of the sheet music. This is a traditional aspect of his work, but what I’m getting at is that Reich makes no attempt to remove his personal control and self-expression from his music, and disclaims connection with the indeterminate and chance music of John Cage. Reich feels that Cage’s compositional process (although in theory he may admire it) bears little resemblance to the actual sounding music. Reich concentrates on synthesizing these two elements in his music and conveying them to the listener in an audibly perceptible process. And from the listener’s point of view, he’s quite successful in doing this.

For example, in a recent concert Reich and his musicians performed two particularly innovative compositions entitled Clapping Music and Six Pianos. In Clapping Music, he reverts to an archetypal situation where he uses no instrumentation other than the performers’ hands. Originally Reich, as he explains in his concise and informative program notes, conceived of the piece utilizing the technique called “phasing.” Phasing is a musical process he accidentally discovered in 1965 while working with two identical tape loops run on separate recorders. Even though both loops were of the exact same length and played at the same speed, they, because of slight technical imperfections in the equipment, gradually separated to vary their phase relationship. In Clapping Music, however, phasing proved out of place with such a primitive method for producing sound (like trying to rub your stomach and pat your head at the same time). He therefore had one performer repeat the basic pattern throughout, as the second suddenly changes by repeating the same pattern but this time with its downbeat shifted over one beat. This is not the usual system of phasing described above, where the speed (if used here it would be the tempo) gradually increased until out of phase, but rather an abrupt step by step change.

This step by step procedure, in its extreme logicality, can be seen in perhaps Reich’s most accomplished piece to date: Six Pianos. Six small spinet pianos were aligned back to back in a mandala shape. Reich explains the complex musical structure in his notes:

The piece begins with three pianists all playing the same eight-beat rhythmic pattern, but with different notes for each pianist. Two of the other pianists then begin in unison to gradually build up the exact pattern of one of the pianists already playing by putting the notes of his fifth beat on the seventh beat of their measure, then his first beat on their third beat, and so on until they have constructed the same pattern with the same notes, but two beats out of phase.

Reich personally selects exactly what note and on what beat the second set of pianists begin systematically reconstructing the original pattern. This is precisely where he makes his esthetic selection, in synthesizing the sounding music with its compositional process. Without such prior explanation of the mechanics involved in Reich’s music, even an untrained ear can easily pick up on the process employed. This is more emphatically felt later on in this same composition when two pianists double some of the melodic patterns by increasing their volume up to the surface of the music, and then gradually fade out. It creates a situation whereby you are slowly made aware of something you were hearing all the time.

Although Reich’s music does offer a somewhat disciplined position for the performers, he believes that true virtuosity lies in a group’s relationship to each other and to the musical composition as a whole.

Francis Naumann