A new kind of music: It's thoughtful but it swings
It is no longer a deep, avant-garde secret that a whole new kind of music has emerged in the United States. Critics have invented various names for it, most of which are misleading or inaccurate. Suffice to say that it is marked by strong rhythms, fragmented melodies, a lot of repetition, and a fascination with the raw materials of music itself.
Steve Reich is one of the instigators and guiding geniuses of this movement, along with Philip Glass and Terry Riley. In a couple of recent New York concerts, Reich reaffirmed his position as a leading light of today's most progressive music. At Carnegie Hall he pointed his new directions in still newer directions, with new structural ideas and instrumental combinations. Then , at Columbia University, he demonstrated the continuing vitality of his greatest past works, in one of the most thrilling musical evenings I have ever attended.
In both appearances, Reich remained true to the gradually developing pattern of ideas that has guided him during the past several years. Like one of his own compositions, Reich's career seems to be working its way through a rich musical process, heading toward some potentially astonishing -- though yet unknown -- ultimate goal. the concept of process is essential in understanding Reich's music. Nearly all his works can be described in terms of a few basic ideas, which are then manifested in a direct and logical fashion.
It all sounds very cerebral, and yet -- as Reich is delighted to observe -- it swings! Some pundits are fond of predicting a kind of music that will unite musicologists and rock 'n' rollers into one happy audience, and Reich's compositions come mightly close to fitting this bill. His has roots in the jazz combo as well as the baroque ensemble, in African drumming as well as the works of Stravinsky. It's joyful, pulsing, dancelike, magnificently accessible music -- to the listener who's willing to sit back and give these hitherto unfamiliar sounds a chance. The high point of the recent Columbia concert by Steve Reich and Musicians was the revival of "Drumming," which may be Reich's most appealing piece. Composed in 1971, it packs enough sheer energy to stand your hair on end , and enough delicate beauty to smooth it down again. Yet withal, it remains one of Reich's most rigorous and austerely logical works.
"Drumming" begins with Reich himself beating a onenote pattern on a bongo drum. Other drummers join him, and a 12-beat pattern develops, to become the basis of the entire piece. As the drumming becomes increasingly fast and furious, the drummers gradually shift their patterns out of phase with one another, so their downbeats occur at slightly different times. New patterns emerge from this altered synchronization, and Reich emphasizes the most interesting of these by chanting them into a microphone. Later, similar processes are worked out -- with the added element of melody -- on marimbas and glockenspiels, with commentary provided by female singers, a piccolo, and Reich's own whistling. In the final section, all the instruments cut loose together.
In its recorded version, on the Deutsche Grammophon label, "Drumming" is a vibrant yet somehow gentle work, full of shimmering surfaces. Onstage, in columbia's intimate Wollman Auditorium, it had an amazingly different effect. The sounds were more direct and more visceral, and therefore more electrifying. Even the visual element seemed important. Seeing Reich and his colleagues right in front of you, whacking away at those drums with ecstatic precision, utterly belied the occasional suggestion that Reich's music is "mechanical" and unsatisfying to perform or attend. Seeing a gaggle of percussionists huddled over a clutch of marimbas, cheerfully working out the most complicated patterns, was like watching a "tribal" experience of the best and most sophisticated sort. It was a salutary experience.
The Columbia concert also included "Six Pianos," the scaled-down result of Reich's early ambition to write "a piece for all the pianos in a piano store." Composed in 1973, it builds complex patterns from eight-note sequences tossed around by a half-dozen players. The effect is extremely percussive; Reich has said that drummers are better suited to this piece than pianists are. Yet it has a strange beauty, like looking at the world through a prism -- everything is bits and pieces that fit together in endless ways.
Both the Columbia and Carnegie Hall concerts included Reich's Octet, composed last year. It has a shape like a since curve, with alternating fast-and-slow cello patterns at its core. It also represents Reich's recent interest in melodic lines concoted from groups of brief musical fragments. It has a sprightly, spunky sound. Rigorous logic and all, it's a whimsical piece.
Also at Carnegie Hall was the American premier of the 1978, "Musical for a Large Ensemble," which combines instruments from every part of the orchestra into the largest force (30 musicians) Reich has ever used.
To be appreciated, Reich's music must be heard, not just read about. Happily , more and more people are giving a listen. It's an intelligent music, full of preconceived ideas and structures. Yet perhaps Reich himself says the last word in his book "Writings About Music" when he says; "The main issue is what's happening musically;m is this beautiful, is this sending chills up and down my spine, or isn't it?"