Steve Reich: Beauty in Repetition

Steve Reich (photo by Wonge Bergmann)

by Seth Rogovoy

From children’s songs like “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” to blues like “Freight Train Blues” to the Clash’s “Train in Vain,” the relentless, repetitive rhythms of the railroad have inspired countless songs that recapitulate those rhythms musically while making overt reference to them textually.

But perhaps no music has ever made more ingenious, effective, and stunningly emotional use of the railroad as rhythmic motif than Steve Reich’s Different Trains, a three-movement work for string quartet and tape. Written in 1988 for the Kronos Quartet, whose 1989 recording garnered Reich a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition, the piece is one of Reich’s most accessible and autobiographical compositions, while at the same time one of the more searingly political pieces of music ever written — so monumental in emotional and musical scope and effect that it alone should once and for all forever banish the term “minimalist” in reference to Reich’s music.

(Reich’s work will be featured on Saturday, July 28, 2012, in the summer Bang on a Can Marathon at MASS MoCA in North Adams, Mass. Reich himself will be in attendance and performing.)

The melodies that the quartet play are derived from simple phrases, or “speech melodies,” recorded by Reich in interviews about three different train rides: the ones he took as a youngster with his governess from New York to Los Angeles to visit his parents, who were separated; the ones occurring at the very same time in Europe, transporting Jews in cattle cars to death camps; and postwar train rides back in the United States.

In addition to the strings and the simple recorded phrases (e.g., “from New York to Los Angeles,” “different trains every time,” “into those cattle wagons,” “but today, they’re all gone”), the piece uses archival recordings of train whistles for atmospheric effect. Reich has noted that the whistles themselves are evocative of their context: “American train whistles of this period in the ’30s and ’40s are mostly long held perfect intervals of fourths and fifths. European train whistles of this same period are mostly in short triadic shrieks.”

Reich is certainly the quintessential composer of our time. His music ingests a global vocabulary incorporating modal jazz, Balinese gamelan, Indian raga, Ghanaian folk, and Hebrew cantillation, while never straying far from its roots in Western Classical music — particularly in its devotion to the structure of the canon — yet what comes out never sounds like anything other than Steve Reich music.

Since the mid-1960s (when for a brief time while living in the Bay Area he was a member of an improvisational jazz-rock group with musicians including Phil Lesh and Tom Constanten who went on to form a band called the Grateful Dead), he has been a composer and performer of his own music, which has ranged from compositions for tape loops to string quartets to music for percussion ensembles and choral groups, plus music for multimedia performances (often in collaboration with his wife, video artist Beryl Korot) that very much suggest the future look and sound of twenty-first century opera.

Reich’s music is also performed by many of the world’s premier orchestras and chamber ensembles, and his work has become de rigueur in the modern dance world — a summer hardly goes by at Jacob’s Pillow when patrons don’t see several different dances choreographed to Reich’s music. While Reich’s earliest pieces tended to be formal experiments, such as Come Out (composed in 1966 and, like many of the works mentioned here, included on a five-CD compilation on the Nonesuch label, Phases — the perfect introduction to his oeuvre), a thirteen-minute tape loop consisting of a single spoken phrase imperceptibly shifted and looped so that multiple channels echo and reverberate eventually to the point of unintelligibility, even back then Reich’s choice of material — a line spoken by the injured survivor of a race riot — evinced a commitment to composing music that spoke with immediacy to the world around him.

But by the mid-1970s, the aesthetic pleasures of Reich works like Music for 18 Musicians equaled their intellectual rewards. Toward the end of that decade, Reich’s music also became increasingly influenced by his exploration into his own Jewish heritage, reflected both in its themes (e.g., The Cave, a music-theater video piece created with Korot exploring the Biblical story of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael, and Isaac) and in its manifest content (e.g., Tehillim, a vocal setting of texts from the Book of Psalms). Different Trains continued in this vein, as did You Are (Variations), the 2004 composition constructed around an epigram by the famed eighteenth-century Jewish mystic, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov.

Reich also has maintained his focus on greater social and political concerns: Three Tales, his 2002 video-opera collaboration with Korot, took on man’s relationship with technology from the perspective of participants in the Hindenburg disaster, the nuclear testings on Bikini Atoll, and the cloning of Dolly the sheep. In a musical choice that would prove eerily prophetic, Reich included actual recordings of fire department field communications from the original 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in his 1995 composition, City Life. (In an interview a few years ago, Reich commented wryly, “I guess subsequent history has provided a whole new context to that piece.”)

Reich also composed Daniel Variations, which juxtaposes a text from the Book of Daniel alongside words by murdered journalist Daniel Pearl (beloved by many in the Berkshires, where he worked for several years at the Eagle and the Transcript, both as a friend and fellow musician).

But none of this is meant to overstate Reich’s significance as a programmatic composer. Rather, it is precisely for the purely aesthetic pleasures of his work that Reich is so highly regarded among his peers, so highly influential among younger composers, and so beloved by fans of contemporary music.

To some extent, all music consists of repetition. But what Reich has perfected is to take the various strategies of repetition he’s gleaned from music throughout the world — including perhaps from Bach above all — and come up with a unique sound vocabulary that relies on subtle emergence of change over time. A quick glimpse or a few-second sample of a Reich passage is meaningless; but some stretch of time — five, ten, or twenty minutes, depending on the work — often reveals startling emotional depths and surprises in the slowly emerging contours of a deceptively simple repeated phrase. In the end, the ultimate resolution may be a happy homecoming, or a horrible fate.
This article originally appeared in the Nov/Dec 2006 issue of Berkshire Living, and is among the columns written by Seth Rogovoy garnering him the CRMA award for General Criticism.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.