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Music I (Mostly) Hold Dear: Steve Reich

01/31/2014 10:12 pm ET | Updated Apr 02, 2014

For my graduate recital at Hampshire College in 1975, I included two works of Steve Reich, Clapping Music (performed with Chris Young ,who went on to make it big in Hollywood) and Music for Pieces of Wood. I traveled from Amherst to Manhattan to talk to Reich about the works. I remember nothing of our discussion about his music, but I do remember the meticulous nature of his downtown loft -- it was spotless, the floors and walls gleaming, everything in its place; his music is not dissimilar.

When I got to New York a few years later, his fortunes had already improved quite a bit, and I decided to catch up with what he was currently doing. When an advertisement was plastered on the wall of some abandoned building for the performance of the first part of a new piece, I decided to attend and ended up in a walk-up loft, where we all sat on the floor. Thus I ended up at the premiere of Music for Eighteen Musicians, his largest and most accomplished piece to date. I, like everyone, was mesmerized. The chugging patterns chugged along, the interlocking parts worked like machine-work, the modal landscape was bright and glistening, and -- oh! -- those bass clarinets moving in and away from the microphone on a low 8th note articulated drone. It was a moment of revelation. (It was even good enough for John Adams to steal for the string basses in Shaker Loops.) I had not heard anything quite so cool before. The piece still holds up well to a hard listen.

Latter pieces don't work as well for me, with many of the smaller pieces sounding like outtakes from something larger. The problem is one of riding a particular idea ad nauseam; like with Albers' series of colored squares, once you have heard a couple, you don't need -- or want -- to hear them all. Some find Different Trains to be an extraordinary piece; I don't, as its Mickey-Mouse matching of text and rhythm is banal, and the harmony just too static, criticisms that apply to the "operas" as well. The large orchestra pieces don't work at all, because, like Glass, Reich has no feel for orchestration, for color or weight, or for the creation of different timbral strata; oddly, these concepts seem foreign to his musical personality. A later piece like the Triple Quartet is simply dreadful, with harmonic motion attempted but unsuccessful, and the density of texture creates an opaque and gray sound wall rather than something to relish; but a composer is allowed his Wellington's Victory.

I will think fondly of those early works in which there is the freshness of discovery, not the latter works that were done seemingly either for financial gain (of course, not a bad thing in and of itself) or just to knock the next piece out.