Richard Taruskin

Published in the New York Times, August 24, 1997

AS OUR CENTURY NEARS AN end, it seems a good bet that Steve Reich will turn out to be the oldest 20th-century composer in whom 21st-century musicians will find a kindred spirit.

This proposition can now be tested conveniently with the help of Nonesuch Records, which has commemorated the composer’s 60th birthday with a big box of new and reissued recordings containing just about every composition on which Mr. Reich’s reputation is based (79451-2; 10 CD’s).

That such an item strikes a major classical label as marketable suggests that perhaps classical music is not coming to the dead end so many have predicted but rather undergoing a systemic evolution. And it is particularly fitting to honor Mr. Reich’s achievement with recordings, because recordings are what made that achievement, and that evolution, possible.

To composers imbued with a 19th-century world view, artistic traditions are transmitted ”vertically.” Nineteenth-century music historiography is an epic narrative of texts arranged in single file. It assumes that artists are primarily concerned — whether to emulate or to rebel — with the texts of their immediate precursors. These assumptions have led to an obsession with lines of stylistic influence, with stylistic pedigree, ultimately (and destructively) with stylistic purity or, worse, progress. This is the altogether anachronistic view most classical composers still imbibe in college or conservatory.

Mr. Reich went to college, at Cornell, but majored in philosophy. To him the main medium of musical transmission was not texts but recordings, and his view of the music surrounding him, accordingly, was ”horizontal.” The epiphany that made him a composer, he has said, came at the relatively advanced age of 14, when he heard in close succession recordings of Stravinsky’s ”Rite of Spring,” Bach’s ”Brandenburg” Concerto No. 5 and bebop.

Someone trained to look at music in terms of vertical traditions would not have sought a common denominator here, nor would such a person, at least in 1950, have thought jazz, a largely unwritten music, to be commensurable with the others. But the common denominator leapt from the records to Mr. Reich’s happily unprejudiced ear.

Stravinsky’s ”Russian” style, Bach’s style and bebop are all driven and regulated by what music theorists call a ”subtactile pulse”: a strongly articulated, rock-steady rhythmic unit that lies beneath the level of the ”felt beat,” or tactus, the beat that conductors show or that we normally walk or waltz or exercise to. (When the drill sergeant tells the platoon to march ”double time,” he is telling it to march at the rate of the subtactile pulse.)

Most ”Western” music of the Germanic ”common practice” period is strongly tactile, with at best a weakly articulated subtactile component. But much music of the rest of the world — Asian or African music; earlier, later or more easterly European music, and of course, American popular music — is intricately coordinated at the subtactile level, allowing overwhelming cumulative processes, or fascinating asymmetrical patterning, or viscerally compelling lurches to take place at the tactile surface. (Think of the ”Danse Sacrale” from ”The Rite,” or the harpsichord ”cadenza” in ”Brandenburg” No. 5.)

Later Mr. Reich found more musics (always, at first, through recordings) that exhibited this ”rhythmic profile,” as he calls it: West African drumming, Indonesian gamelan, medieval organum and hocket. These provided the models for the ubiquitous chug-chug-chug without which Reich would not be Reich, against which the gradually unfolding or playfully shifting surface processes of his music are measured and become intelligible.

The best early demonstration of its magic is ”Four Organs” (1970), the first Reich piece to win a large audience, in which the systematically expanding phrases on the surface would be as uninterestingly arcane as most contemporary classical music, instead of riveting and elating, but for the maracas that sound out the subtactile pulse.

Eventually Mr. Reich went to Ghana and to Berkeley, Calif. (where Balinese gamelans flourished), to gain hands-on experience and body involvement with the styles that now fascinated him. A few earlyish pieces sound a bit like imitations of ”oriental” musics in the manner of Cage’s prepared-piano works or Colin McPhee.

But Mr. Reich’s most characteristic pieces fuse everything into a unique personal idiom that arises out of the glorious assumption of an ecumenical heritage stored electronically, in which sounding music from every time and place is instantly available as part of a notional Here and Now to which we all have equal eclectic access.

At more technical levels, too, Mr. Reich’s breakthroughs would have been unthinkable without recording technology. The earliest pieces that are recognizably Reichian are his ”phase” pieces of the mid-60’s. The technique was a serendipity discovered when Mr. Reich played two copies of a single tape loop through different tape recorders into the two channels in a set of headphones. (They contained the phrase ”It’s Gonna Rain,” drawn from a gospel sermon.)

One loop began gaining on the other in time. ”The sensation I had in my head,” Mr. Reich recalled, ”was that the sound moved over to my left ear, moved down to my left shoulder, down my left arm, down my leg, out across the floor to the left, and finally began to reverberate and shake” and eventually ”came back together in the center of my head.”

Of greatest interest here — and, as things turned out, of historical significance — is that Mr. Reich was more concerned with the effect of the music (first of all on his own body) than with the technique of its fashioning. That implicit (in modernist terms, heretical) solidarity with the audience was characteristic of the early phase pieces, lending them a quasi-political — shall we call it ”60’s”? — appeal that compensated for their sometimes thin musical content.

In ”It’s Gonna Rain” (1965), Mr. Reich was willing to decide that the phase phenomenon itself was more interesting than anything he might do with it, so he simply allowed it to play itself out. In its provocative modesty it was a genuinely avant-garde, shock-the-bourgeois gesture, and it was amply repaid with abuse from the relevant bourgeoisie, the technocratic modernists lately ensconced in university music departments.

But the avant-garde Mr. Reich represented differed from previous ones, roundly refuting the conventional ”theory of the avant-garde” put forth by modernist pundits like Renato Poggioli or Theodor W. Adorno. Like any avant-garde, it was the opposite of conservative or nostalgic. It sought no return to older styles. If it used consonant harmonies, it was only to focus the site of innovation elsewhere, not to reinstate traditional harmonic hierarchies.

Unlike the ”traditional” avant-garde, though, it was also the opposite of socially alienated. It sought connection; indeed, the status of African drumming and gamelan performance as models of harmonious social interaction was among their attractions for Mr. Reich. Like those musics, his was viscerally engaging and often produced euphoria in its hearers. It became popular with ”nonclassical” audiences and commercially successful. And so, of course, the modern-music establishment denied its seriousness. A popular avant-garde might seem as much a contradiction as a tenured one.

An advance guard is avant-garde, however, only with respect to a status quo; and in that respect Mr. Reich has been a potent, and a very serious, force for change. He has remained not only a serious artist but also a restless one, whose continuing creative quest has led him toward solutions to a couple of esthetic problems that his ”serious” contemporaries have notoriously failed to solve, or even acknowledge.

One problem is that of addressing a whole person in music. We have had lots of new music, God knows, that reduces listeners to their cerebral cortex, and in opposition to that, lots (including most ”Minimalism”) that reduces them to their autonomic nervous system. Mr. Reich, happily, along with Gyorgy Ligeti, Conlon Nancarrow and only a few others, has seen the need to treat his listeners as fully conscious, fully sentient human beings.

After discovering the ”phase” process he immediately began adapting it to traditional instrumental and vocal media, producing perhaps the earliest ”live” music that deliberately aped recorded music. The complicated layered textures that have resulted from this adaptation can be arduous to execute with the required precision. Mr. Reich insisted on making the difficult ”back transfer” where sticking to tape would have made things easy for all concerned, because the effort and the arduousness conspired to humanize the product and make it communicative.

But no matter how complex the patterns or processes in Mr. Reich’s music, they can be grasped by the naked ear and parsed by the rational mind, adding intellectual to physical involvement and banishing the sort of discouraged mental passivity so much new music induces.

Musically sophisticated audiences — audiences who like ”challenging” music — find much to their liking in the textures and harmonic subtleties of Mr. Reich’s ”Counterpoints” for ”whole consorts” of homogeneous timbre, prerecorded instruments interacting antically with live soloists.

YET MR. REICH’S SONIC world is not just a multicultural playground. In the 1980’s he began to expand his horizons, re-engaging with texts, first in ”Tehillim” (1981), a lilting, melodically inventive setting of Hebrew psalms for three pure-toned ”early music” sopranos (usually in close ”phaselike” canons) and orchestra. Then, in ”The Desert Music” (1983), an ambitious cantata stretched out over a few earnestly exhorting fragments from poems by William Carlos Williams, Mr. Reich broadened his harmonic palette into intense chromatic terrain and equipped it to deal with sober, even somber matters.

Finally, in ”Different Trains” (1988), Mr. Reich went the full distance and earned his place among the great composers of the century. For here is where he solved the other problem. He has composed the only adequate musical response — one of the few adequate artistic responses in any medium — to the Holocaust.

With famous and flatulent self-importance, Adorno announced that after Auschwitz, poetry had become impossible. The kind of art Adorno upheld — pretentiously abstract, ostentatiously alienated and self-involved — surely did ring hollow after the art-loving Nazis, co-opting the masterpieces of the past, had unmasked the moral contingency of high ”humanistic” esthetics. What was desperately needed, though, was a poetry that gave significant form to that contingency and disillusion.

Most of what was put forth, from the heavy tomes of existentialist philosophy to the bloated cantatas of the Socialist Realists, ludicrously contradicted by its bombast the sensibility it sought to embody. Or else it sought with mendacious sentimentality to retrieve a message of uplift from the abyss.

Arnold Schoenberg’s ”Survivor From Warsaw” (1947), the most famous musical memorial to the Holocaust, falls easy prey to these pitfalls. Were the name of its composer not surrounded by a historiographical aureole, were its musical idiom not safeguarded by its inscrutability, its B-movie cliches — the Erich von Stroheim Nazi barking ”Achtung,” the kitsch-triumphalism of the climactic, suddenly tonal singing of the Jewish credo — would be painfully obvious, and no one would ever think to program such banality alongside Beethoven’s Ninth as has become fashionable. That kind of post-Auschwitz poetry is indeed a confession of art’s impotence.

”Different Trains” does it, well, differently. In a tradition going back through Janacek and Mussorgsky to the music of the Greeks as the Renaissance Italians imagined it, Mr. Reich based the melodic content of the piece on the contour and rhythm of ordinary human speech. But in his case the speech consisted of fragments of oral history (recordings again!), looped into Reichian ostinatos, then resolved into musical phrases conforming to the normal tunings, scales and rhythms of ”Western music,” imaginatively scored for string quartet. These speech melodies were set in counterpoint with the original speech samples, all of it measured against the constant Reichian chug.

Only this time the chug is given an ”objective correlative” in the actual chug and clack of moving trains, evoked also by periodic whistles adjusted to the ever-modulating tonalities of the speech samples. In the first of three sections, the speech samples are voices from Mr. Reich’s own past, recalling the transcontinental train rides of his childhood. In the second, train whistles give way to air-raid sirens, and the collage of speech melodies is drawn from archival tapes of Holocaust survivors recalling their childhood ride to Auschwitz. A third section synthesizes the two sets of recollections over the unremitting subtactile pulse.

There are no villains and no heros. There is no role for a Ralph Fiennes or a Werner Klemperer to flatter your sense of moral superiority. And there is no bathetic glory to comfort you with a trumped-up Triumph of the Human Spirit. There is just the perception that while this happened here, that happened there, and a stony invitation to reflect.

THE ONLY MOMENT THAT could be said to point a moral is the matter-of-fact statement by one of the speakers in the third section that ”today, they’re all gone.” Remembering his voice from the first section, we know he was talking about the American transcontinental trains of the 30’s. But we also remember the second section, so now he’s talking about the Jewish children, too. It is a true synthesis, and it is also an exquisitely understated closure of the musical form. It brings an ache, and a shiver.

So successful a mapping of structure and meaning, so thorough an interpenetration of sonic material and conceptual metaphor, is the mark of a master composer. (The word, recall, means ”putter-together.”) More than that, it is the work of a mature human being, perhaps even more of a rarity in today’s musical world. So perfectly realized is ”Different Trains” that I was sorry to see Mr. Reich, in later works like ”The Cave” (1993) and ”City Life” (1994), turning the voice-sampling technique into a routine. And I was sorry to see the pithiness and indirection of ”Different Trains” turn, in ”The Cave,” into a rambling, somewhat hectoring sermon on Arab-Israeli relations. The work as presented here was adapted from the soundtrack to a reportedly dazzling video documentary. Perhaps it was not a good idea to issue it as an independent audio experience.

As far as I am concerned, Mr. Reich can go permanently astray now and never lose the distinction of having given classical music back first its youth and finally its soul in the waning years of the 20th century. It is something for which the musicians of the 21st century will remember him and be grateful. We can be grateful already.

Mr. Taruskin is generally recognized as the greatest music historian and musicologist of our day. He recently completed his 6 volume Oxford History of Western Music