In the booklet that accompanies this boxed set, Alex Ross observes that "[Steve Reich's] formative musical experiences were with recordings, rather than with live performances". I heard Reich himself make a similar observation at the UK premiere of You Are (Variations) (included in this set) at the Barbican in January 2005: "Born 1936, the first generation to hear more recorded music than live music." Now aged 75, you could make a case that Reich's life and career defines all the key moments of recorded music, its growing influence, its few decades of pre-eminence as a money-earner for musicians, and now its diffusion into an intangible lubricant for other musical experiences that have taken centre stage. He could almost be a patron saint of Music Arcades.
I saw Reich in conversation again five years later, this time at the Queen Elizabeth Hall for a performance of Drumming. Drumming for me has always felt like pure essence of Reich, the Platonic ideal form of the most Platonic body of work. Drumming was the main draw of this set: at the time, in 2006, it was only two or three pounds more to get Drumming plus four further discs of Reich than it was to buy Drumming on its own (now there's one version of Drumming that's actually dearer than Phases).
I really wanted to see Drumming played live, because I imagined being able to see the musicians would heighten and deepen awareness of the interlocking patterns of their playing. I wasn't disappointed, it was quite an evening, and I hope to see it again before I die, to complement the three recorded versions I have of the piece (the performances by Ictus and So Percussion are available on eMusic).
That evening in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Reich mentioned that the first performance of the piece had been just a few yards away in the Hayward Gallery in 1972. The performers then included Michael Nyman, Gavin Bryars, Cornelius Cardew — as he observed, "they may have been famous in their own way, but not as percussionists".
Brian Eno was another early supporter, and a lot of his ideas about generative music have roots in Reich's early compositions. So it was interesting to hear him a little while back saying how frustrating he found it that the recordings of Drumming are all so dry and feature quite characterless performances. Why not get Tony Allen in to play it, and record it so that the listener feels that the drums and percussion are all around them, rather than off in the distance, fixed in a proscenium arch? Will someone do that one day — the equivalent of one of those King Crimson reissues — or has the window of opportunity closed?
My own sense of the limitations of Reich's work is that the shape of the process pieces tends to be too similar. They all start sparse, then build, layer by layer, in the middle, before thinning out again towards the end. This came home to me when listening to Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices, and Organ, which, happily, goes against this trend and actually opens up and creates more space about a third of the way into its 17 minutes. Phase Patterns is another piece I've discovered recently that feels like it develops a bit more laterally than in the classic linear beginning-middle-end resolution.
After the Drumming concert last year Steve Reich mentioned that, up to the age of 14, he had heard no music before 1750 or after Wagner. Then he heard Rite of Spring, Charlie Parker and The Brandenburg Concerto in a short space of time… Which makes me think: wouldn't it be fascinating to have Reich talk through his record collection?
MusicBrainz entry for this album
Wikipedia entry for this album
Rate Your Music entry for this album
Some metadata about this album at Last.fm
Listen to this album in full at We7
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For the record, here are my full notes from the two Steve Reich conversations I attended.
16 February 2010, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Drumming
In conversation with Gillian Moore and Colin Currie (leader of the Colin Currie Group, who had just performed Drumming) [these notes written from memory later in the evening].
Part 1 of Drumming is skin (bongos), 2 is wood (marimbas) + voices, 3 is metal (glockenspiel) + voices & flute, 4 a combination of all.
All the musicians are playing the same basic thing, but in different phases.
12 is the magic number, because it can be three 4s, four 3s, two 6's, one 12, a 5 and a 7 and so on.
Most musicians ask "where is One", but in Drumming you can't locate it in a fixed place for all players at one time or any player at all times.
The first performance of Drumming was in the Hayward Gallery in 1972, and performers included Michael Nyman, Gavin Bryars, Cornelius Cardew — they may have been famous, said SR, but not as percussionists.
There was no scandal or uproar in response to early performances of Drumming; not as with Four Organs, which is harder work. SR says he generally doesn't see visions when listening to music — "when I close my eyes, I see black" — but in Drumming there is the sound of sunshine, and sheets billowing in the wind on a washing line.
Up to the age of 14, Steve Reich had heard no music before 1750 or after Wagner. Then he heard Rite of Spring, Charlie Parker and The Brandenburg Concerto in a short space of time.
18 January 2005, Barbican, You Are (Variations)
You Are (Variations) Back to basics, deliberate, after Cello Counterpoint - this time not trying to anything new. Though after 3 or 4 minutes, it goes to places Reich's music hasn't gone before. It doesn't matter what you do, it's how well you do it.
Text took 6 months and 30 'save as's.
Stravinsky: Composers are like animals grubbing around for roots, and when they find one, they eat it.
People with iPods are somewhere else in their minds. "You are wherever your thoughts are" in the text.
"Explanations come to an end somewhere" Wittgenstein. You know that scientific explanations will continue to change and evolve.
Some of the text is in Hebrew to avoid the consonant 'ch' sound.
Started working on a video opera. Using samplers (first in Different Trains)
Born 1936, the first generation to hear more recorded music than live music. Micing techniques have got closer to the instruments, making more detail available.
Reich's creative juices flow from his choice of instrumentation: in 1987 he decided not to write for orchestra, nor for string quartet.
In Eight Lines/Octet, being able to see the musicians helps identify the symmetries and asymmetries of the music (e.g. one pianist does not need a page turner because he is playing the same motif over and over again; the saxes balance the flute and piccolo).
In You Are (Variations) Reich says "In the sixth variation you might hear echoes of James Brown (the 'Godfather of Soul')"