Deep down, whether we wish to admit it or not, many of us are passing judgment every time we hear a new piece of music. As we listen, either we are eager to hear more, or we want it to be over as quickly as possible; we want to hear it again immediately after it is finished, or we never want to hear it (or anything else the composer has written) ever again. In rare instances, we leave the concert hall wanting to experience this piece, or this artist, as much as we can for the rest of our lives. This is an intuitive process, and the decision, the judgment, often takes only a split second. That is what happened for me the first time I heard Steve Reich’s music, in the early 1970s.
I was in my early 20s and still in the process of trying to figure out my own taste in contemporary music. I wasn’t sure what modern classical music really meant, nor was I sure about how it stacked up against work from the past. At that time, a rather severe form of modern music was in vogue and was being written about enthusiastically by the leading and most influential critics. I found some of it interesting, stimulating, and challenging. But in all honesty, I loved very little of it. (And isn’t that what truly draws us to music—loving it at a gut level, in the deepest and in the most profound ways?) Then Steve came along…
With pieces like Music for 18 Musicians and Drumming, Steve suddenly flung open a door to the possibilities of what a modern composer could be in our time. My first attempts to place him in a context of the continuum of music were meek: I thought, at the very least, Steve is going to be a great role model to future generations of composers (this, as it happens, is true), and I thought, Steve’s greatest accomplishment will be that he helped start a revolution, that he was a great innovator (this, as it happens, is also true). What I did not realize (because who in their 20s can know how they will feel 30 years later?) was how incredibly good the music truly is, how resilient it is. No matter how positive my first reactions were, the music is even better than I thought back then. His compositional style had nothing to do with a polemical debate about the future; it was about the music, pure and simple.
Now, 35 years after Steve’s first pieces began to be known, issues of context are irrelevant. I only think about the music he has given us, and listen to it with enormous gratitude and awe at its miraculous invention.
Robert Hurwitz is the President of Nonesuch Records.