I was thrilled to learn that at the age of 72, Steve Reich has finally been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music for his 2007 composition, Double Sextet, commissioned by the ensemble, eighth blackbird (yes, no typos).
I live in Greater Boston, so I’m proud that Michael Tilson Thomas, when assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, was the first to bring Reich’s music to a large-scale venue. He arranged a performance in Boston’s Symphony Hall of Four Organs (1970) soon after its completion. I was still in England then, aged 15, but, with my musical friends, already interested in Reich’s work. However, my fascination truly coalesced on hearing a live performance of Clapping Music (1972)—several performers clapping their hands, but what clapping!—in Cambridge, England a few years later.
Much of Reich’s work is disarmingly complex, exploiting augmentation (the temporal lengthening of phrases) and, in his earlier music, phasing (identical phrases performed simultaneously but in different tempi so that they diverge, then converge). Although bebop informs his music, it is not about improvisation, rather highly controlled rhythmic and harmonic interaction. “I know when I have truly learned your pieces,” said Tilson Thomas in 2006, “because they stop hurting.”
Music for 18 Musicians (1976) found Reich going beyond phasing to create an amazing hovering soundscape using pianos, marimbas, xylophones, metallophone, maracas, strings, clarinets, base clarinets, and amplified women’s voices. He has written for the great Kronos Quartet—Different Trains (1988) for string quartet and taped voices—and especially for his own group, Steve Reich and Musicians. But as a former percussionist, I treasure his most rhythmically challenging works, which induce a deer-in-the-headlights effect on the listener. Just try Drumming (1971), which Reich wrote after a study visit to Ghana, or Music for Pieces of Wood (1973). Check out the performance of the latter by the virtuoso Tetraktis-percussioni at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eCI6z0mU__0.
Congratulations, Steve Reich! Keep throbbing!