I love Steve Reich’s music. I think it can sometimes reach that quality we find also in Bach, and which, groping for a name that describes it, I would call jouissance. The music itself is like a tapestry made of sound, in which each distinct thread contributes to the overall sound picture. It is not reflective, barely even tender; it never ruminates, and there are almost no melodies or other fragments that you can walk away humming. The beginning of some pieces is just a pattern, a pulsation—or sometimes it seems as if the music has simply started of its own accord. But it’s always clear that something, some kind of busyness, has been switched on, and that we’re already in the middle of it even if we can’t quite sort out what’s happening.
Although he is normally thought of as a composer of instrumental music, Reich has also been a composer of vocal music of one kind or another almost throughout his career. While it would be accurate to describe his essential musical language as one based primarily on interlocking rhythmic patterns—seemingly far removed from language and its manifold layers of meaning and emotion—his use of the voice and his attention to the sound and meaning of words has played a significant role in his development as a composer. One of his most profound concerns is with language, and more particularly with the sound of the spoken voice, and of the way in which this can lead directly into the composition of music.
Reich’s music has been described as cool, rational, objective, technological, even mechanical. But my own experience of the music, especially in live performance, is dominated by its physicality, its irresistible rhythmic momentum, its melodic invention, and—in the vocal works—its exploration in depth of various social and historical themes of major proportions. These themes are represented in a documentary manner, and in such works Reich assumes, in a sense, the role of a reporter. Of course, it is impossible for a reporter to be entirely objective, if only at the level of selecting which story to tell and which information to present. And if we look at some of the themes that Reich has chosen to explore—the Holocaust, the nuclear bomb, the Arab-Israeli confrontation, the cloning of animals—we recognize that these are subjects filled with emotion, not so much in the telling as in our response to their significance.
Paul Hillier is the Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, Founder and Director of Theatre of Voices, and Chief Conductor of Ars Nova Copenhagen; he cofounded The Hilliard Ensemble.