Reich’s approach to composing is very different from his peers. He sometimes refers to his compositional style as a gradual process;
whereby the listener can literally hear this process unfold from relative simplicity and stasis to contrapuntal complexity.
How he does this is similar to singing Row, Row, Row Your Boat. He might take a six note figure and repeat it. Then, by what we might call an additive process, another instrument might take that same figure and play it, but starting on a different beat.
The two lines become blended and in doing so, suggest a new line and this is added and so on. It creates this canonic fabric where all the lines create something new and exciting.
All the while, other lines are doing similar additive (and subtractive) processes, creating this vibrant consort of interlocking counterpoint. It’s always infused with an irresistible Afro-jazz rhythm, making it very hard not to become swept away with the excitement.
Some favorites from the Reich catalog:
It’s Gonna Rain and Come Out. These early works involving tape manipulation are truly for the adventurous only. They are hypnotic and truly achieve a one of a kind of listening experience. They reveal the essence of the Reich idea of that a single sound can become symphonic when looped and out of phase.
Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ. This is an absolute perfect example of the aesthetic principles and beauty of minimalism (or preferably music with repetitive structures). What if Perotin played with a jazz group that had African marimba players and Farfisa organs? This would be the result. I never tire of this piece.
Six Marimbas. Originally written for six pianos, these pulsing, interlocking marimbas create a mosaic of patterns which keep shifting like light through a diamond. Nothing about this music is easy or simple. The listener discovers, as in world music, that all beats are equal.
Drumming. This may be the ultimate percussion statement by Reich. 90 minutes of lightning fast Afro drumming, crystal chiming glockenspiels, piccolo paired with whistling all coming to a final thundering statement by the full ensemble. The rhythms are so catchy; they will get into your ear and stay for quite a while. You may even find yourself humming them like pop tunes.
Music for 18 Musicians. This may be the piece that started the wave that reached around the globe. Listen closely to Peter Gabriel’s No Self Control or Shock the Monkey and you hear almost a direct lift from this hypnotic masterwork. Also, there would be no 1980’s King Crimson if this piece hadn’t been written.
Different Trains and City Life. Both of these pieces use sampled voices and sounds which are played like musical parts with an ensemble. While popular music may have used samples first, Reich takes this to a whole new level. The writing is intricate, the sampled voices are instantly memorable and integral to the story. The end result is marvelous.
So, my congratulations to Steve Reich, an American original. Thank you for your wonderful and exciting music.
I recommend listening to this Fresh Air interview with the composer in 2001.