Steve Reich participated in one of the most significant revolutions in twentieth-century music. It seems hard to believe that an artistic movement so single-mindedly dedicated to the art of reduction and simplification could have had such a pervasive effect on the way we listen to and think about music. This wiping clean of the slate was surely not an easy act, and it was often done in the face of withering ridicule. But history shows us that art does not necessarily obey the law of ever-increasing complexity. It shows us in fact that for every Art of the Fugue and Musical Offering there will inevitably follow a Figaro or Magic Flute; that The Golden Bowl and The Wings of the Dove will almost certainly be answered by A Farewell to Arms or The Sun also Rises. There are periods in all the arts when the language reaches a certain critical mass of complexity, beyond which lies only sterile mannerism. At those times, when the art form seems particularly inflated and prolix, spring-cleaning is in order.
The simple gesture is the hardest of all to defend. Some art forms lend themselves almost too easily to verbal exegesis: dance, photography, painting. Music is perhaps the most stubborn of the arts for which to find words, and simple music, be it Schubert or Mozart or a Negro spiritual, defies explanation altogether. It “simply” eludes apology. This is the case with Reich’s music. One covers the technical grounds, the canons, the phasing procedures, the manipulation of timbres, and the unique approach to text, and then either the music speaks to you, or it doesn’t.
Reich developed his language at a time when Western art music had reached a state of information saturation. The European avant-garde had taken the atomization of musical elements to the “farthest reaches of the fertile land,” to use Paul Klee’s phrase. Since music is organized sound, and sound is, after all, nothing more than molecules banging against one another in the atmosphere, musical pitches were vulnerable to being treated pitilessly as mere data. They were made to obey arbitrary laws of combinatoriality, models of mathematical perfection, expressive of nothing except their own interralationships. We all know this story by now–how “serious” music became increasingly more abstract and inaccessible while its composers became ever more hectic with their verbal, hyperrational, even more explanations of what they were doing.
Whether it gave Steve Reich pain to be an outsider is a secret only he knows. He certainly did not follow the traditional routes to a career in new music, preferring instead to work around the conventions of the classical music world by playing in art galleries instead of concert halls, and composing for his own specialized ensemble instead of fulfilling the usual orchestral or chamber music commissions. Perhaps the very fact of his being an outsider contributed to the unique originality of his music, a music which has become one of the most instantly recognized styles in the world today.
Like many a great jazz musician, his interest in theory has always been that of a pragmatist. His concern is for what will work, what will achieve the desired effect. One can see from a quick survey of his work that when a particular foray into new territory was not working, he would withdraw from it abruptly and move on. This makes him fundamentally different from John Cage, for whom theory was the generating principle behind each creation, no matter how playful the means of carrying it out may have appeared. Cage, despite his status as a radical, was still committed to the modernist principles of atomizing musical elements, and in this critical sense he continued the tradition of Schoenberg far more thoroughly than his fans would like to acknowledge. Reich, on the other hand, was intent on restoring the pleasure principle to contemporary music. For too long in this century, the anima which once had been the domain of the great composers had been abnegated, and only in popular music could it flourish. Reich and his fellows led the way back. For him, pulsation and tonality were not just cultural artifacts. They were the lifeblood of the musical experience, natural laws. It was his triumph to find a way to embrace these fundamental principles and still create a music that felt genuine and new. He didn’t reinvent the wheel so much as he showed us a new way to ride.