By William Webster
New Yorker music critic Alex Ross’ recent positive review of a concert featuring the compositions of Steve Reich at New York’s Carnegie Hall made me look forward to the presentation of the same program at Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music late last month. Reich has garnered considerable attention and respect as one of the best of the classical minimalists.
Composer Steve Reich — the minimalist with the most?
To my mind, Ross was generous in his comments. Reich’s music turns out to be a mixed bag, moments of insight and brilliance blended into endlessly prolonged compositions whose primary asset is to numb the listener: at their worse, they make you feel as though you want to jump out of your skin.
The compositions, presented over the course of two performances, were Piano Phase (1976), Different Trains (1988), Six Pianos (1973) and Music for Eighteen Musicians (1976). The weakest of the four pieces, both in terms of composition and performance, was Six Pianos. Reich’s works are torturously difficult to perform, particularly, as they were here, when tackled by student-performers. In his program notes Reich informs us that the work is in three keys (D major, E dorian and B natural minor). This is not as much an obstacle for musicians as the fact that the composition is not “metered.” Piano Phase was clearly not metered either, but it was also not scored, unlike Six Pianos.
But the problem with Six Pianos was not just the difficulty of the score. The student performers struggled valiantly, but not always effectively, to play the right notes at the (admittedly) approximate right places. Worse, the pianos were too large, out of tune, and the note-decay time was too long. The result was muddy and muddled, to say the least.
The biggest disappointment among the four compositions was Music for Eighteen Musicians. Reich began with an idea that promised terrific sonic texture and depth, an exercise that would easily have propelled a fantastic 15-minute work. But 65 minutes of minimalist repetition makes even a determindedly fair-minded listener comatose or mad.
Music, beginning in the Renaissance and going through the 19th century, might be described as being “episodically narrative.” Regardless what else occurs in a piece, it tends to have “musical events” and movement from one to the next. Once this patterning is abandoned, as it has been in the 20th century, it is very difficult to justify spending much time with a piece that denies the very idea of development.
The most complex and transparent work, Different Trains, presents an intriguing study in polarities: New York/Los Angeles, American/Europe (Holocaust), voice/instruments, tape/live performance. In this piece, Reich takes German composer Arnold Schoenberg’s notion of Sprechtstimme, (Pierrot Lunaire) a step further. The music follows the natural pitch line of the human voice. Another interesting aspect of the composition was how the first two dense-textured movements, which included recorded sound, were placed in (ironic) contrast with the final movement, which did without the tape. The first two movements evoked the noises made by trains, while the last concentrated on the sound of the string quartet.
Piano Phase, which was beautifully performed, also turned to be the finest composition offered during the two performances. For once, Reich took a direct and straightforward approach: the result was an effective piece of music. The two pianos begin in unison, then, while playing the same figure, move apart. They continue to separate even with the arrival of the illusion of a tertiary sonic phenomenon. This phenomenon is best illustrated in an early Reich work, “It’s gonna rain.” In this piece, the composer plays a loop of a phrase on two tape recorders that are slightly out of sync. The discontinuity that results turns into a kind of sonic wave that does not out vibrate its welcome – the piece was the perfect length, slightly more than ten minutes.
If Steve Reich is the greatest living composer, as some critics believe, than he earns his accolades in short bursts. The more of Reich’s less the better.