Obviously everyone knows that Steve Reich had a birthday this week, his 70th, in fact.
Who, you ask? Oh come on, don't tell me you don't know who Steve Reich is. Pioneer of minimalism? He of the phasing shift and multiple tape loop compositions? Surely you've heard of at least a few of these '60s and '70s chart-toppers: "It's Gonna Rain," "Come Out," "Music for 18 Musicians," "Piano Phase"?
No? Well, Reich had a big hit in 1988 with "Different Trains." Ring a bell? How about his 1993 opera The Cave — or even the multimedia, cloning-and-nuclear-bomb-themed opera he premiered here in Charleston for the 2002 Spoleto Festival, Three Tales? Maybe you're a fan of Spoleto's Music in Time series, programmed by effusive new music advocate John Kennedy. If so, you'd have heard bucketloads of Reich's work over the years — the New York beat collective So Percussion did his very cool phase-shifting hypno-marvel "Drumming" a couple of years ago. Local modern music adventurers The New Music Collective hammered out (literally) his "Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ" during last spring's Piccolo Spoleto.
Stil nothing? Fer cryin'... Okay. I didn't want to have to do this, but I see I have no choice: Philip Glass.
Ooooooohhhhhhh, yeah, now you're getting it. Why am I not surprised? I name-check one of the 20th century's most influential musicians — the Village Voice only called Reich "America's greatest living composer" — and you're all, like, who? until I mention a contemporary of his who's made a career out of scoring films (The Illusionist, Candyman, Kundun, The Hours, etc.) with the minimalist technique he and Reich developed together. So typical.
So yes, as I was saying, Steve Reich turned 70 this week. Not that you noticed. But the rest of the world, for your information, has. In New York, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Carnegie Hall, and Lincoln Center have teamed up to present complementary programs of his music, and in London, the Barbican is mounting a big retrospective. Reich-centric concerts are being presented across the globe, from Amsterdam and Athens to Vancouver and Vienna.
Charleston, however, seems to have forgotten to plan a party.
That being the case, I took it upon myself to ask a passel of local musicians, composers, and conductors to reflect on Reich and — for good or for ill — what impact he and minimalism have had on their own work or that of music as a whole. The answers I received were not all flattering (hey, not everyone likes Sufjan Stevens, either), but they were all insightful somehow.
Charleston Symphony Orchestra Resident Conductor Scott Terrell
"Minimalism was a music language that has evolved into a style that can express music on several levels. If you're looking for the minimalist movement in 20th-century history, one certainly has to look to Reich as one of the major players in that movement. For me, the patterns and repetition of minimalist music, and then the deviations from these patterns, create a very subtle, almost hypnotic expressionism. This season, we're doing a work of Philip Glass, another major player of the minimalist movement."
College of Charleston music instructor and composer Edward Hart
"Reich's influence on my music is minimal (sorry, I couldn't resist). Generally speaking, composers fall into two categories: those who like and appreciate minimalism and those who don't. I'm afraid that I'm in the latter camp. I do think, however, that Reich's emphasis on percussion is interesting and perhaps influential. Also, like Philip Glass, he's helped blur the lines between popular music and classical music, which is probably a good thing."
Spoleto Festival USA Artistic Associate John Kennedy
"When I talk to composers of my generation, it's amazing how many of us regard 'Music for 18 Musicians' as a signal experience that inspired our desire to be part of the future of music. I remember being in high school and going to hear Reich and his band play it at a concert in Minneapolis, and sensing that an alternative performance experience to classical music had been born. Reich opened up the path to leaving behind the 20th century's style wars and, in my opinion, was the leader in rejuvenating our approach to and love of tonality."
City Paper Music Editor T. Ballard Lesemann
"Growing up with a classical music-loving father who used to 'air-conduct' to Mozart and Beethoven symphonies, I had a pretty strong idea about what proper 'concert music' was all about by the time I hit college. Or so I thought. When I started hearing more modern composers – from the hypnotic tones and rhythms of pieces by Philip Glass and Steve Reich to the electro experiments of Karlheinz Stockhausen – it all seemed completely weird and almost awkward to me. Once I opened my mind and ears a bit more, however, I discovered more than few ambitious musical at ideas at work. Reich's thoughtful music seemed legit to me at the time – and still does."
College of Charleston music instructor and composer David Maves
I've heard him stress that the kids with electronics – pop and rock guitar bands – are the ones to listen to, the folk music of our day. Where Mozart or some such composer would occasionally take a 'pop' tune of his day as a subject for variation or elaboration, Reich would look to something from a garage band. It's a pity he and Philip Glass don't get along, because between the two of them they've developed an interesting style that's no longer really classical minimalism. And neither of them like that word. Double-handedly, they've had a tremendous impact."
Percussionist and New Music Collective member Ron Wiltrout
"For me, Steve Reich has been a longstanding influence. His music, for me, is representative of patience and process and the possibilities that arise through systematic thought. The patience necessary to listen to the processes being unfolded is rewarded by the beauty that unfolds as you listen. His music, though process-based, never sounds contrived, nor does it sound long-winded and boring. He's very specific about the textures he wants – even down to specifying models of mallets for percussionists – and the results are consistently gorgeous and mesmeric.
"Numerous other musicians in Charleston seem to share a fondness for Reich's music. The New Music Collective performed his 'Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices, and Organ' for Piccolo Spoleto. Nathan Koci and I have performed 'Clapping Music' numerous times, and we're sitting on an interesting arrangement of 'Music for Pieces of Wood.' There's an attraction to his music that seems hard to deny. It's accessible without compromising itself artistically, and that is a rare thing."
Composer and writer Fernando Rivas
"The repetitive drone-like approach of minimalism is probably an attempt to zero out, or cancel in some way the effect of so much variety and complexity. At the same time, it draws from primal sources of musical expression. Primitive music was often minimalist because it knew no other way to be. It was an expression of rhythmic urgency or vocal release. In that sense, the minimalist approach reminds me of Picasso's forays into primitive art. It's an attempt to free expression from the clichés of style and tradition that built up over several centuries.
"That said, it's worth pondering whether all the traditions can so easily be dismissed. Often stylistic breaks like atonalism or minimalism force artists to look at what they're trying to say from different perspectives, and they often result in the creation of some newer hybrid that's neither the specific style nor the cliché that was there before."
Composer Richard Moryl
"I've never really been a fan of his. I think Reich and Philip Glass were kind of spawned in the Village in New York by a group of hippies who couldn't deal with modern classical music of the time, which was often very atonal, and they needed something more like easy listening. They were offering something people were looking for, and that was a way out. You could listen to their stuff without knowing anything about music. You don't have to pay much attention, it just keeps going on and on, like wallpaper, in the background.
"I did some concerts with Reich in the '60s. He performed a looping tape piece called 'Come Out' that he made on a street corner. Everyone knows his name, but whether they know his music is entirely different."