Master Minimalist Steve Reich Proves That Even in Serious Music Less Can Be More
First-time listeners may find more madness than method in the minimalist music of composer Steve Reich. His works seem to have no beginning or end. Notes and chords are repeated endlessly, mimicking the effect of a stuck needle. That doesn't mean his music is a snap to perform. Classical flutist Ransom Wilson describes Reich's Vermont Counterpoint as "ten minutes of uninterrupted playing that requires precision and concentration roughly equivalent to trying to balance a pencil on your nose while walking against traffic along Fifth Avenue."
Yet, as Wilson is quick to assert, there is much more in Reich than first meets the ear. The converging tones and pulsing rhythms moving in and out of phase ultimately create an intricate aural mosaic of hypnotic effect. Reich's experimental forms, once the province of avant-garde galleries and college campuses, have moved into major auditoriums and have played to sellout crowds in Carnegie Hall. He is besieged with commissions for original works by leading musical ensembles on both sides of the Atlantic.
At 48, Stephen Michael Reich has reached a new plateau in his rise to the ranks of major composers. His Desert Music, a large orchestral work (89 instrumentalists, 27 choral voices), which some critics have already proclaimed his masterpiece, premiered in the U.S. last month at the Brooklyn Academy of Music under the baton of Michael Tilson Thomas. "What's happening," says Thomas, a longtime champion of Reich's, "is that more and more people are becoming aware that his music is not a fad. What makes his music beautiful are the same things that make Schubert's music beautiful: The notes are simply and eloquently chosen."
Reich grew up in a divided family—his parents divorced when he was a year old. "I was about their only joint venture," he says. His mother, pop singer and lyricist June Sillman (she wrote Love Is a Simple Thing), was remarried to screenwriter Sidney Carroll, and young Steve spent his early years shuttling between Manhattan and Beverly Hills. Then, at 5, he moved back with his father, Manhattan attorney Leonard Reich, who later remarried and moved to Larchmont, N.Y. The idea was to give Steve and his half sister, Eileen, the benefits of leafy suburbia, but Steve moodily spent his time in the basement playing the drums.
A neighborhood pal who owned a large record collection plugged Steve into modern classics. "Stravinsky's Rite of Spring was monumental," Reich recalls. "It was like somebody opening a door and saying, 'You've been living in three dimensions; now I'm going to show you the fourth.' "
After majoring in philosophy at Cornell, he took degrees in music from the Juilliard School and Mills College. To support himself he drove a cab in San Francisco where his first marriage—to an artist—broke up after two years (and one son, Michael, now 22). Reich returned East in 1965. "Ultimately," he says, "I'm a New Yorker."
Living a bare-bones existence in a low-rent loft in lower Manhattan, Reich survived on a "modified macrobiotic diet" of curried rice with raisins, bananas and green beans. He took up yoga for awhile until he hurt his spine doing too many headstands. Meanwhile he continued to develop his innovative musical forms. By recording the same musical phrase played at different speeds and then replaying the tapes simultaneously, he achieved a uniquely desynchronized tempo in early pieces like Piano Phase and Come Out. In 1967 Reich had his first major hearing, providing the music to accompany a minimalist art show at a SoHo gallery, an event that caused Reich to be heralded (along with fellow Juilliarder Philip Glass) as the leading exponent of minimalism in music.
That tag has stuck even though his music has grown immeasurably richer. Intrigued by tribal drumming, he visited Africa and later immersed himself in Balinese gamelan music. In Music for 18 Musicians in 1975, his work took on a shimmering, quasi-symphonic quality, and the album sold close to 100,000 copies worldwide.
His creative mellowing and new lyricism coincided with his marriage to artist Beryl Korot in 1976 and the birth of their son, Ezra, two years later. Once casual about his Jewish roots ("I lip-synched the Hebrew for my bar mitzvah"), he now faithfully observes the Sabbath. "I'm the kind who can work 24 hours a day, every day," he explains. "The Sabbath allows me to take care of my personal life." After a moment's reflection, he adds, "I'd recommend it to every corporate executive in America."
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