At the opening of any Steve Reich work, an idea sounds and begins to resonate outward. The reflections created by this idea are of such an exquisite nature that you feel the composer is dealing with the purest form that music can have. In the same way that physicists are searching for the meaning of the universe in the smallest particles that make it up, Steve’s music deals with the most profound secrets of how music comes into being. Steve not only sees the world in a grain of sand, he sets it vibrating.
This purity of concept and approach makes Steve Reich’s output a natural entry point for understanding how music comes into being and how it works its magic on us. Beginning in the 1960s, his early tape and phasing pieces cause us to explore our own perceptions of speech and sound. With the rhythmic canons of the 1970s, he uses the elemental pulses of life to reveal an almost sculptural quality in music, where a small change in our aural viewpoint reveals an entirely new perspective. Independent harmonic rhythm arrives as well in this decade, grounding his large-scale structures while expanding the expressive horizon in all directions. Within these larger harmonic forms Steve discovers a melodic voice that is eloquently his own, adding an extra dimension to his unique musical language.
Because this musical trajectory parallels that of human mental development, I have taken great joy in introducing children and young people to his musical world. Steve’s works teach them immediately in a singular way that music is a participatory event. It doesn’t matter whether you are playing, singing, or listening; you are part of the music.
If you are lucky enough to work with him as a performer, your excitement will be doubled by realizing not only that he wants you to perform a piece perfectly, but also that he loves it when you perform it creatively. It is hard to describe the rush when he approaches you after your group has just nailed some very virtuosic passage and says, with that half-smile of his, “Now that’s just what the doctor ordered!”
Unlike any other music that I have come across, Steve Reich’s creations make us actively aware of our own listening experience. His is a musical mirror held up to remind us of what it means to be alive and united by sound.
This note first appeared in the booklet to Steve Reich Phases: A Nonesuch Retrospective and is reprinted with permission. © 2006 David Robertson
David Robertson is the Music Director of the Saint Louis Symphony and Principal Guest Conductor of London’s BBC Symphony.