Steve Reich. Those two long monosyllables. It is hard to remember that the name was once unfamiliar, now that the name and the music are everywhere.
Everywhere is where this music came from. Reich’s visit to Ghana in 1970 was a signal event in recent cultural history. To what had recently become the first African country to achieve independence from a colonial power, a white Westerner went to learn—or not so much to learn as to discover that his musical intuitions chimed with those of his hosts. Later this same Westerner studied the music of Indonesian metal percussion orchestras. Later still he set himself to learn Hebrew and the traditions in which it is sung in Jewish religious practice. And all the time there were the lessons that came from the classical Western culture in which he was trained—lessons he drew not only from his teachers (Darius Milhaud and Luciano Berio among them) but also from Stravinsky, from Bach, and, going back eight centuries, from the medieval Parisian master Perotin. There were lessons, too, to be learned right here in his home city of New York—from the grid of the city’s streets and its ribbons of movement at different speeds, from jazz, from diverse patterns of speech.
Out of all these lessons and studies came something quite precise and particular: a musical language instantly recognizable, growing all the time but never losing its identity. Reich could draw on so much because he always went for the basics—of beat, measure and short melodic profile. And he goes on creating anew because the discovery he made in his 20s—that music could arise from patterns repeating in processes of change—is inexhaustible.
Constantly reformulating the layout of beats in a measure, or the lengths of a rotating chain of harmonies, or the sounds of a recurring melodic phrase, this music belongs to the digital age. And yet the music seems, too, as ancient as humanity, involved with the ways we think and feel and move. Placing percussion instruments at the center—whether alone, or as part of an orchestra, or to support groups of voices and strings—the music embraces rhythms of pulsation that come naturally to the body. Being made out of innumerable similar elements, thus conveying information and experience through the accumulation of the infinitesimal, the music also accords with what science and insight can say about how ideas and emotions form within us. While having no use for what is generally meant by “feeling” in musical performance, the music can yet wield immense power through its vibrant architectures of sound in motion, not so much expressing as directly generating effects of excitement and release, of progress and achievement, of joy, and sometimes of humor. This music can also listen to the sounds of the world around, including those of human voices. It can observe and report. It can warn.
No wonder it has found a worldwide audience. Having begun giving concerts in the late ’60s in Manhattan, most often in museums and galleries, Reich has been regularly in Europe since the beginning of the ’70s. The repercussions were soon felt even by one of the most distinguished European composers, György Ligeti; for younger musicians in all parts of the world—and writers, dancers, visual artists—they have proved life-changing. No US composer since John Cage has left a wider, deeper mark. Coming from everywhere, created by a keen and constantly self-refreshing mentality, this music has gone everywhere. It will stay.
Paul Griffiths’s most recent book is A Concise History of Western Music.