On October 3, influential American composer Steve Reich turned 80, and celebrations of that milestone seem certain to continue for the next 11 months. Reich is one of the key architects of minimalism, along with Terry Riley, La Monte Young, and Philip Glass, and he’s enjoyed perhaps the most successful and rewarding career, consistently finding new ways to approach the deceptively simple constructs at the root of his music. Tonight the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s MusicNow series at the Harris Theater presents three Reich pieces composed between 1988 and 2007. The concert is cohosted by Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music, which awarded Reich the Nemmers Prize in Music Composition earlier this year and will host a couple of residencies by him in 2017.
The newest piece on tonight’s program is the Pulitzer-winning Double Sextet, which Reich wrote in 2007 for Chicago sextet Eighth Blackbird. For the original release, the ensemble played live against a recording of itself playing the piece, but onstage a dozen musicians frequently perform the work, dispensing with the playback—and that’s likewise the approach employed on a strong new recording from Ensemble Signal, a New York group conducted by Brad Lubman that also delivered a phenomenal new version of Music for 18 Musicians last year. The new Harmonia Mundi release of Double Sextet, which features Chicago percussionists David Skidmore (Third Coast Percussion) and Doug Perkins, also includes a sharp version of Radio Rewrite, a 2012 piece for which Reich constructed something all his own from fragmentary elements of two Radiohead songs—a kind of reverse remix. The other two pieces to be performed this evening are the 1988 Reich warhorse Different Trains (famously recorded by Kronos Quartet) and the 1995 vocal piece Proverb, which draws upon a Wittgenstein text and will be performed by musicians from the Bienen School.
Reich’s 80th birthday has already occasioned dazzling reissues of some of his flagship works, and I imagine more will be forthcoming. In September, Deutsche Grammophon reissued the brilliant 1974 three-LP set that collected Drumming (1970-’71), Six Pianos (1973), and Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ (1973)—arguably the most important things he’d written up to that point, with the possible exception of process pieces such as Pendulum Music or tape-phasing works such as Come Out. They represent a clear bridge between Reich’s earliest experiments and the developments of his relatively mature late-70s and early-80s compositions.
The set devotes four of its six sides to the hypnotic, layered lines of Drumming, which begins with a dense, polymetric profusion of tuned drums played by four percussionists (including the composer himself) and then switches to Reich’s more typical marimbas and glockenspiels, dazzlingly embroidered with flute and voice. The liner notes allow a glimpse of the caliber of thinkers and performers working with Reich at the time, among them composer Cornelius Cardew, singers Joan LaBarbara and Jay Clayton, and percussionist Glen Velez. Already present in Drumming are some of Reich’s key themes: terse, tightly registered lines, which draw on hocketing techniques borrowed from traditional Ghanaian drumming, give voice to hypnotic, slowly morphing melodic patterns, taking us on a journey where we don’t know where we’re headed and only realize we’ve arrived when we notice how different the landscape has become from our starting point. The other two pieces reveal the growing influence of gamelan on Reich’s music, and cumulatively they provide a jumping-off point for much of his subsequent work.
Reich made three classic albums for ECM in the late 70s and early 80s, which have been reissued in a single package called The ECM Recordings. The first of those was the 1978 release of Music for 18 Musicians, one of his masterpieces—and with more than 100,000 copies sold in its first year, a commercial success, something that was already increasingly rare in classical music. The work is built around 11 chords, each with its own dedicated movement; Reich uses them to convey a wide range of emotion, shifting between major and minor as well as precisely varying the relentlessly pulsing rhythmic patterns.
Two years later ECM released a record that combined a current piece with a foundational early work. A few years after composing Octet in 1979, Reich reconfigured its arrangement by incorporating a string quartet, transforming it into the better-known piece Eight Lines, which occasionally spreads long horn tones over his familiar pulsing patterns, helping the listener glide through their slow transformation. The 1967 piece Violin Phase is one of Reich’s earliest, one of several key compositions in which long, repeated phrases go in and out of phase with one another. And his 1981 work Tehillim gives a central role to the human voice, which Reich had used regularly but rarely so prominently; it’s based on parts of biblical psalms, and the delivery of the text generates much of the rhythmic structure.
Erland Dahlen, Blossom Bells (Hubro)
Lou Harrison, Drums Along the Pacific (New Albion)
Matsuo Ohno, The World of Electro-Acoustic Sound and Music—1 (King, Japan)
Martin Scherzinger, African Math (New Focus)
John Escreet, Exception to the Rule (Criss Cross Jazz)