Steve Reich’s “Double Sextet” at UR: Steve Reich is a big deal

Last week Steve Reich debuted a composition at the University of Richmond. Matt White opines on why that is a Big Deal.

Editor’s Note: The following is the heartfelt reaction of our bearded music enthusiast to a performance given last Wednesday, March 26 by Eighth Blackbird at University of Richmond’s Modlin Center for the Arts. Just a warning, you might read this and experience pangs of regret that you missed this amazing world premiere because you were eating pizza and watching Top Model (also a worthy pursuit, I did that exact thing last night). Not to worry. Eighth Blackbird, UR’s artist-in-residence, regularly performs pieces by fascinating and innovative contemporary composers, and we are lucky enough to have them so close to home.

Last week Steve Reich debuted a composition at the University of Richmond. I, in all my experience (first time at this), all my wisdom (all 25 years of it) and all my musical acumen (thats what they say my degree is for) will try to communicate why that is a big deal.

Let me say that I am no authority on Steve Reich. I’m not even going to comment too much on the composition as I listened to it once and certainly have not looked at the music. Actually, one of the eternal problems I find with “music journalism” is that somehow the writer has managed to become a master, an ultimate authority on the material that he is dealing with. He makes sly remarks referencing greater (read: more obscure) bands, drops all those names, and generally gives us the feeling that he is the ultimate overlord on said CD or musical subject matter. I won’t do that. What I will do is try to make us aware of Steve Reich’s place in history…because he has one, and it might be surprising to some of you just exactly where he fits, who he has influenced, and to what degree he has changed the shape of the last half century of music.

Let’s start with a brief and totally disrespectful history of 20th century classical music (logz?) First the music sounded like Beethoven. Then people got pissed because it sounded too nice and organized and pretty. So…they invented this new thing called serialism to “emancipate the dissonance”. These new jams sounded nuts. And real weird.

Then World War II happened.

After that people were mad pissed and depressed and shit got REAL crazy…electronic music, the European avant-garde, the American avant-garde blah blah blah. Emerging from all of that was what has become to be called minimalism. Enter Steve Reich. He, of course, doesn’t fancy being called a minimalist, but for all practical purposes – for plebeians like you and me – this is where he fits. The minimalists did an amazing thing: they made the music “simple”. Instead of things being amazingly complex, very difficult/impossible to play with man and machine screeching and skronking around, they repeated things a lot – a whole lot – and they used more “normal” and “pleasant” notes.

From here things get less dorky and there are some very interesting connections between this major shift in 20th century classical music and some music that you and me might know, like music we might actually have in our car. There are four main minimalist composers: La Monte Young, Philip Glass, Terry Riley, and Steve Reich. And it’s all just big incestuous scene so let’s just jump in.

vu.jpgLa Monte Young went to school in California and played saxophone. He played it so well that when he went to school out there he landed in front of classmate Eric Dolphy in the school’s jazz band. While out there in California, he also played with other “notables” like Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, and Billy Higgins. Those folks are the archetypes and “inventors” of what was to be called “free jazz”. Anyhow, he moved to New York, did some more things, Yoko Ono curated some shows of his and then he started a group called The Dream Syndicate. Amongst Dream Syndicate members was a young and impressionable fellow named John Cale. John Cale would go on to found the Velvet Underground and become one the most influential producers of pre-punk, punk, and new wave. He would also oversee important recordings by The Stooges, Nico, Patti Smith, the Modern Lovers, and Squeeze.

Phillip Glass might be the most famous of the minimalists having composed the scores for The Hours, Notes on a Scandal, and Taking Lives as well as being nominated for 3 academy awards. Early admirers included Brian Eno and David Bowie, and Glass eventually composed his first symphony, “Low,” and his fourth symphony, “Heroes,” after the David Bowie/Brian Eno collaborations in the early 70’s of the same names.

Glass has also worked with with songwriters such as Paul Simon, Suzanne Vega, Natalie Merchant, and the electronic-music artist Aphex Twin, resulting in an orchestration of Aphex Twin’s piece Icct Hedral in 1995.

Terry Riley was the freakiest and weirdest and lest I continue to bore you with all his all nerdy detes……WHICH I AM HAPPY TO DO!!! I will just tell that his most influential piece was In C, a piece that is often cited as the first minimalist composition and included none other than a young Steve Reich in the debut performance.

OK, OK , OK , OK!!! Steve Reich!!! HERE HE IS. FINALLY! Anyhow, AS YOU CAN SEE, he is the last composer in a string of folks whose influence not only encompasses a turn in the tastes of 20th century classical music connoisseurs, but also has had a defining role in artists such as the Velvet Underground, Brian Eno, and David Bowie.

sr.jpgOK, so Steve Reich. He did this thing called phasing – thats what he’s famous for…PHASING!. Not to oversimplify but FIRST he listened to a bunch of African music, realized that their concept of rhythm was way way beyond our Western jams, read this book that I’ve been looking for for years on the internet and composed some different sounding tunes. THEN, after playing with some tape loops at different speeds realized that it sounded sweet. FINALLY, he merged these two bits of creativity and began incorporating phasing into live music performances. It’s hard as a bitch to perform, opens up all kinds of compositional doors to explore, satisfied those “intellectuals” among us, but more than anything sounds super beast. It kinda sounds like this:


Sufjan Stevens loved it and ripped it:


Tortoise loved it and ripped it:


Sonic Youth performed a composition of his on a recent album. Godspeed You Black Emperor composed a song named “Steve Reich”. For you uber movie nerds he composed the soundtrack to “Oh Dem Watermelons”. Brian Eno owes basically his entire ambient aesthetic to him. David Bowie and David Byrne are also vocal admirers and their work often speaks louder than they might. 1000’s of DJ’s and electronic musicians have paid him heed and the idea of looping, phasing, and constant repetition has certainly tunneled its way into our collective conscience without most of us knowing its source.

Anyhow. All that to say this: a man whose creative circle includes the Velvet Underground, David Bowie, Davd Byrne. King Crimson, Sufjan Stevens, Godspeed You Black Emperoror, Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, Sun Ra, Tortoise, not to mention his classical contemporaries Philip Glass, La Monte Young, John Cage, Terry Riley, and Morton Feldman, was at U of R last week. He even gave a lecture that was open to the public. He debuted a piece that is being released by Nonesuch (Wilco, the Black Keys) in the next little while. The Washington Post was there. It will be played next at Carnegie Hall. In short, its a big deal, might even be a “historical” event. Whether or not its really any of those I thought it sounded great, it was right down the street and although the seats are too small, I had a wonderful time.

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Matthew E. White

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