Steve Reich

Often cited as inspiration by art rockers such as Brian Eno and Robert Fripp, Steve Reich’s recording career stretches back to the 1960’s and continues to the present day. His catalogue is enormous, but arguably his most creative and accessible period is represented by a handful of middle-period albums from the 70's and 80's, most released on German label ECM Records.

artist:
Steve Reich

country of origin:
USA

style(s):
Minimalism, contemporary classical, avant-garde, orchestral

decades active:
60's - 10's

some essential releases:

  • Music For 18 Musicians (1978, ECM)
  • Octet/Music For A Large Ensemble/Violin Phase (1980, ECM)
  • Tehillim (1982, ECM)
  • Electric Counterpoint / Different Trains (1989, Nonesuch)

Reviewed by Mike G

The prolific recording artist Steve Reich is one of the founding fathers of contemporary minimalism: an offshoot of 20th Century classical music that takes repetition as its raison d’être and explores its possibilities over extended compositions. Although in their early days in the 50's and 60's the minimalists were considered heavily avant-garde, the likes of Reich, Philip Glass and Terry Riley bought some tonality and harmony back to "serious" music after half a century dominated by the negative and discordant academic music of composers like Schoenberg.

Often cited as inspiration by art rockers such as Brian Eno and Robert Fripp, Reich’s recording career stretches back to the 1960’s and continues to the present day. His catalogue is enormous, but arguably his most creative and accessible period is represented by a handful of middle-period albums from the 70's and 80's, most released on German label ECM Records. If you're new to his music, these are the best entry points.

Music For 18 Musicians (1978) features pianos, woodwind, female vocals and various mallet instruments. The pulsing, repetitive signatures and slowly unfolding patterns may recall the work of fellow minimalists like Philip Glass, but unlike Glass the emphasis here is on sustained chords rather than chord progressions. The rich textures, the ultra-cool instrumental precision and the soothing resonance of the Balinese gamelan sounds give this music a beauty and strangeness that Reich can claim as uniquely his own.

His second ECM album Octet/Music For A Large Ensemble/Violin Phase (1980) contains some of the most accomplished music of Reich's career. "Octet" features a similar array of instruments to the previous album and calls for ten performers, while "Music For A Large Ensemble" is of more orchestral proportions and features thirty musicians. This is music you can really get inside of, that seems to endlessly unfold from within itself via deceptively simple melodies and spiralling patterns of interlocking rhythms. Engaging, intelligent and gently transcendent, the album reveals new depths with every listen and remains a seminal Reich work.

Tehillim (1982) sees Reich moving ever closer to classical music, yet still breaks ground in the way it invests his trademark hypnotic pulses with an emotional charge unprecedented in his work up to that point. Using a large ensemble - including Farfisa organ and four female vocalists - Reich sets a number of Hebrew Psalms to music over four symphonic movements. It's a joyous, often fast-paced work where he deftly meshes elements of ethnic, folk and scared music into the symphonic structure. But it's not classical in any rigid sense; there is still that peculiar rhythmic and repetitive quality that points to Reich's starker minimalist origins.

Finally, one of his best non-ECM albums from this period is Electric Counterpoint/Different Trains (1989). "Electric Counterpoint" was written for jazz guitarist Pat Metheny and is an example of Reich’s “process music” which features a musician playing live against taped loops of himself. Robert Fripp and Brian Eno’s first two collaborative albums from the 70's are the best-known examples of this style, but it was actually Reich and Terry Riley who first pioneered the process music technique a decade earlier. The Metheny piece is brilliant, with his distinctively warm, soft guitar tones proving ideal for Reich’s tape loop and delay system which stretches out the melodic phrases into deeply trance-inducing clusters of sound.

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