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Steve REICH (b. 1936)
The ECM Recordings
Music for 18 Musicians (1976) [56:31]
Music for a Large Ensemble (1978) [15:28]
Violin Phase
[15:09]
Octet
[17:29]
Tehillim (1981) [29:52]
Steve Reich and musicians; Shem Guibbory (violin, Violin Phase); George Manahan (conductor, in Tehillim only)
rec. 1976, Studio des Dames, Paris (Music for 18 Musicians); February 1980, Columbia Recording Studios, New York (Music for a Large Ensemble, Octet); March 1980, Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg (Violin Phase); October 1981, Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg (Tehillim)
ECM NEW SERIES 2540-42 [3 CDs: 56:31 + 48:06 + 29:52]

Dedicated fans of Steve Reich or American minimalism need only note that here are three key early recordings by Reich, played by his own ensemble and brought together at a reduced price. Those who can’t abide minimalism will already have moved on to another review. I am writing for those who are prepared to be intrigued and to explore minimalism and are wondering whether this would be a good place to start.

Early minimalism, as practised by Reich and Philip Glass, is not as simple as it may sound. Their early pieces used small fragments of melody constantly repeated with much of the musical interest concentrated on slow changes to the patterns over a prolonged period. The thematic and harmonic processes characteristic of Western music were deliberately abandoned, and techniques drawn from popular and non-Western music were introduced. Some of this music induced a trance-like feeling through the use of constant repetition. It was not written for conventional forces; Reich and Glass formed their own ensembles who toured the world playing only their own works, like rock groups.

Reich began with works which explored these ideas and one of them, Violin Phase, is included here. He gradually moved on to larger ensembles and more varied and interesting ideas. These led to his first big success, Drumming of 1971, which was issued by DG. They also recorded his next big work, Music for 18 Musicians, but did not know how to market it and eventually licensed it to ECM in the recording we have here. This was a success, and ECM went on to make two more recordings of Reich, which complete this set.

I first heard Music for 18 Musicians many years ago at a London Sinfonietta concert. I went because I thought I ought to hear it at least once; I came away thinking it was a masterpiece, an opinion I have maintained. It plays for an unbroken 56 minutes for an ensemble quite unlike that of any grouping traditional in Western art music: four pianos – one of which Reich plays – no fewer than five marimbas, a vibraphone with the fan turned off, one violin, one cello, two clarinets doubling bass clarinets and four wordless soprano voices. There is some doubling of instruments. The work is in twelve sections which play continuously. The opening and closing section, both named Pulse, set out a cycle of eleven chords, and then in the middle ten sections each chord in turn is introduced as the basis for a developing pattern, usually in an arch form. Changes to a new pattern are signalled by the vibraphone. The piano and mallet instruments maintain a constant pulse while the voices and wind instruments are governed by the length of their breaths. I could say more about the structural devices, but what these cannot convey is the feeling of the work: the beauty, even radiance of the texture and repeating figures and an all-pervasive sense of joy. Nor is it in the least boring; it draws one in in such a way that it is impossible to withdraw attention while it plays. Most people consider this Reich’s finest work, and, from what I have heard, I would agree, though I would put the choral work The Desert Music next to it.
 
Music for a Large Ensemble was written in 1979 and then extensively revised. It is about a third the length of Music for 18 Musicians and requires thirty players. It is divided into four sections which play continuously, using rather similar ideas to that of the earlier work but worked out over a much shorter time-span. In that way it is easier to follow. It does not seem to me to have the same radiance but it is still impressive. The sleeve-note wrongly says that this is the only recording; there is another, in a slightly revised version, on Nonesuch (review).
 
Violin Phase is one of Reich’s earliest scores and belongs to the period when he was experimenting with ostinato patterns going in and out of phase – hence the title. In it a solo violin plays a short phrase repeatedly. Against this are three pre-recorded versions of the same phrase run with slight differences in the running speed so that they get out of phase with one another. The resulting interlocking patterns are the point of the piece. In his introductory note Paul Griffiths says that Violin Phase was already a classic at the time of its recording in 1980. I am not so sure. It is one of those works the idea of which is more interesting than its realization. It seems to me more of an study, a sketch or an experiment than a fully realised composition. At any rate I found it unbearable to listen to and shall not do so again. However, it – and the other works of this kind from this period, by both Reich and Glass – are historically important.

The Octet was written to commission and was originally scored for two pianos, a string quartet and two wind players. These were required to double not only on clarinets and bass clarinets but also on flutes and piccolos. This Reich’s own players can do, but it is not common elsewhere, and the balance between strings and wind was also not satisfactory, so Reich rewrote it for fourteen players, re-titling it Eight Lines. In this form it has been recorded several times; we have here the only recording of the original octet version. It is in five sections, the pianos playing constantly in what Reich says are his most difficult parts, while the other instruments double them or play long, slow melodies. For me the work was slightly spoiled by the abrasive clarinet tone, which was odd because the same players play perfectly smoothly in the other works. I suspect that the Eight Lines version is to be preferred.
 
Tehillim arose from Reich’s decision to explore his Jewish background. He studied traditional ways of chanting, studied Hebrew and the Torah and visited Israel. The work is a setting of verses from the Psalms. In his introductory essay in the booklet Paul Griffiths calls it Reich’s symphony of psalms, evoking Stravinsky’s work of that name, which also sets passages from the psalms. However, here one is reminded less of that work than of Stravinsky’s Les Noces, as Reich’s work is also mainly fast and rhythmic, though also moving. Reich sets the texts in Hebrew, in this resembling the work of Bernstein in his Chichester Psalms. These references suggest that this work is closer to the mainstream tradition than the others collected here and that would be correct. There is far less direct repetition and Reich here employs a new type of melody, related to Jewish cantillation but not borrowed from it. There are four female soloists and a small orchestra with six percussionists. One unusual instrument used is a tuned tambourine without jingles; Reich uses two of these along with some other standard percussion to approximate instruments used in Biblical times. The work is both exuberant and beautiful and I was glad to get to know it.

The performances here are by Reich’s own ensemble in which he himself plays the piano, marimba or percussion. They are obviously authoritative. The recordings are clear and stand up well despite going back up to forty years. The three discs are in cardboard covers which reproduce exactly the original LPs with their covers and so are rather short measure for now. It is also inconvenient that Music for 18 Musicians is presented in a single track lasting nearly an hour, whereas it consists of twelve sections which could at least have been given separate index points in case the listener is interrupted.

The booklet gives Reich’s original notes, a new introduction by Paul Griffiths and the texts of Tehillim in transliterated Hebrew, English and German. It is otherwise only in English. There are a number of original session pictures, looking a bit murky now and without captions. The booklet and three CDs are contained in a slim-line box.

Until 1990 Reich did not release his works to be played by anyone other than his own ensemble and there were no scores available. Scores have now been published and his works have been taken up by other ensembles, some specially formed; there are now several other recordings of most of these works. There is also a later one by Reich’s own ensemble of Music for 18 Musicians on Nonesuch. However, these, the original recordings, will always have a place. Music for 18 Musicians is a wonderful work and Music for a Large Ensemble and Tehillim are also well worth getting to know.

Stephen Barber


 

 




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