Michael Tilson Thomas

I first heard Steve Reich’s music sometime in the early ‘60s at a party. His early piece Come Out was played by the host at a late-night gathering of filmmakers, painters, poets, and other artistic types united by their avant-garde aspirations and their search for life beyond grad school. I was the only musician present. At first I wasn’t quite sure to what I was listening. The location of the party in the risky environs of downtown LA blurred the edges of what was the piece and what were just normal noises of LA late-night weirdness.

The piece really took me aback because it was so different from any of the “avant-garde” music I had known or performed. By the mid-’60s the avant-garde wave had created and coalesced into fairly predictable stylistic puddles. Music of the future, the dogma of the day seemed to decree, would be an extremely dissonant, rhythmically fractured, and abstractly deconstructed exercise. Much of this music fell into the category that, to paraphrase Stravinsky, could be described as made not to be enjoyed but to be admired. Steve’s piece was different. It seemed both to engage and provoke at the same time. What else, I wondered, could the composer be writing?

My estimation of his music was greatly enhanced soon after when I heard It’s gonna rain and Violin Phase. The pieces were long, witty, spiritual, swinging; and best of all, the notes were great. Hearing those first instrumental pieces was joy like that of hearing Monteverdi, Pérotin, or James Brown for the first time. it was amazing that someone could be discovering so much music with such economy of means. There was something streetwise and at the same time enormously innocent about it.

A few years later I began a series of new and unusual music concerts with the Boston Symphony Orchestra-the so-called Spectrum Series. The first concert was one of music for multiple ensembles written during the past 300 years. It seemed essential that one of Steve’s pieces should be on this program, so I called him up.

From the nature of his music, I somewhat expected that Steve would talk in a very mellowed-out West Coast way. On the contrary, a precise New York voice answered the phone and queried my interest in somewhat cautious, disbelieving tones. Why, he wondered, would an august orchestra like the Boston Symphony want to perform his music? His music, he affirmed, was for ensembles playing in artists’ lofts south of Houston Street in downtown Manhattan. It had nothing to do with the world of high-society music consumption.

I told him how much I liked his music and how convinced I was that it would appeal strongly to the young audiences it was my mission to bring into Symphony Hall. Somewhat reluctantly, he agreed to let us perform Four Organs, but only with the stipulation that he himself would play in the performances and supervise every detail of the rehearsals. Indeed he did supervise every detail, insisting on exactly which kind of organs (Farfisas), what kind of maracas (Latin percussion rawhide and buckshot specials), and even the sort of extension cords to be used to provide the power. All of his requirements turned out to be absolutely essential and correct for the success of the piece.

The piece made a colossal impression when we did it in Boston, and even more so in New York City. Carnegie Hall was packed with a mixture of the Boston Symphony’s conservative subscription audience and a sprinkling of wide-eyed New York downtowners. In all my years as a performer, I have never seen such a reaction from an audience. After a few minutes into Steve’s piece a restlessness began to sweep through the crowd: rustlings of programs, overly loud coughs, compulsive seat shifting, gradually mixed with groans and hostile exclamations crescendoing into a true cacophony. there were at least three attempts to stop the performance by shouting it down. One woman walked down the aisle and repeatedly banged her head on the front of the stage wailing, “Stop, stop, I confess.” The audience made so much noise that, in spite of the fact that the music was amplified, we were unable to hear one another’s playing. I had to mouth numbers and shout our cues so that we could stay together. Just after the piece came to a close, there was a moment of silence followed by a veritable avalanche of boos. It was deafening. We stood up and took a bow smiling as best we could and walked off the stage. Steve was ashen, looking as lost and unhappy as a lost soul from Michelangelo’s Last Judgment. I, on the contrary, was exhilarated. I turned to him and said, “Steve, this is fantastic. It’s the kind of thing you read about in history books, like the premiere of Rite of Spring. Whatever some members of the audience think about your piece, you can bet by tomorrow everyone in the United States will have heard about you and your work and will be hugely intrigued to hear it for themselves.”

The scenario did play out much as I thought it would. The reaction of the audience turned out to be pretty much divided along lines of age. The younger public’s enthusiasm for Steve’s piece took off at that concert and swept right through performances of many of his pieces in the following season. Since that time, I have been thrilled to watch Steve’s expanding repertoire for diverse instrumental ensembles, orchestras, and choruses become part of the repertoire in Europe and Asia.

Moreover after more than twenty years his notes sound fresh. They joyous jazz-tinged American-Jewish melancholy that we all love in Gershwin, Copland, and Bernstein rings in Steve’s work anew and true. Inevitably others tried to create a stylistic fashion around his work that has already come and gone. But Steve’s work makes its own rules and continues to deepen and explore. He’s already given us back so much joy in music. It’s exciting to think of what he’ll do next.

Michael Tilson Thomas
San Francisco, California