My lifelong love of Steve Reich

Jonathan Coe on a love affair with minimalism.

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“Finished up at 10.00 watching an enormously interesting BBC Two programme about the American composer Steve Reich.” So concludes the diary entry for 24 March 1979, written by my 17-year-old self. I still remember that programme (Trail Blazers) and the impact it had on me. I already knew a little about minimalism and systems music: striving to differentiate myself from my school friends, I’d been buying records by the likes of Gavin Bryars and Michael Nyman, released on Brian Eno’s Obscure Records label. But these albums had been a tough listen: the music often seemed to start from an arbitrary intellectual position, rather than any desire to please the listener. I expected the same of Reich, but his sound-world, as soon as I entered it that night, seemed welcoming and familiar. In fact, with its battery of tuned percussion, decorative strings and ethereal female vocals, the piece Reich and his collaborators were performing – Music for 18 Musicians – sounded like a repetitive but turbocharged version of Tubular Bells, and for the next hour I was captivated by its driving, insistent pulse and cat’s cradle of interlocking melodies.

On 12 February the London Sinfonietta performed the piece again, at the Royal Festival Hall: not far off 40 years to the day since that BBC broadcast. It was preceded, in a very short first half, by the UK concert premiere of a recent work, Runner for Large Ensemble. It turned out to be fairly typical late Reich, much like Music for Ensemble and Orchestra, premiered at the Barbican last November: energetic, densely contrapuntal, with mildly dissonant harmonies and angular, bittersweet melodies unfolding over the usual busy pulse. It’s great that he’s still writing music as vital and rigorous as this, but it was Music for 18 Musicians, taking up the second half of the concert, that brought the audience to its feet.

To trace the evolution of New York minimalism, the movement of which Steve Reich became one of the central figures, there are two indispensable books: Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond, written by a young Michael Nyman in the early 1970s and, for an eye- (or ear-) witness account of the key works’ very first performances, The Voice of New Music, a collection of reviews by the journalist and composer Tom Johnson, originally published in the Village Voice.

Johnson’s review of Music for 18 Musicians – which was only 35 minutes long when he first heard it, and was being performed under the title Work in Progress for 21 Musicians – appeared on 9 June 1975. It offers a fascinating and unexpected perspective on the piece. To me, and to most of the other viewers who had not heard any Reich at that point, the BBC broadcast four years later seemed to be showcasing a revolutionary, challenging aesthetic. The use of repetition, the absorption of African drumming techniques into the Western classical model, seemed unprecedented. But this was not how Tom Johnson heard it at all. Having spent the last decade listening to La Monte Young and Terry Riley concerts in East Village lofts, he saw Music for 18 Musicians as marking the end of an era, not its beginning.

“The decline of minimalism has become more and more clear,” he wrote. Johnson found Reich’s new piece “quite lovely to listen to … But I miss the strength, toughness and severity which characterized the unrelenting logic of his monochromatic scores such as Four Organs.” He doubted that the piece “would be offensive to even the most conservative listeners”, and concluded by praising Reich’s craftsmanship while admitting to “feeling a little sorry that the era of New York minimalism has come to such an abrupt end”.

Hearing Music for 18 Musicians performed with such zeal and discipline last week, it was clear that the piece may have signalled the end of something, but it had been the beginning of something, too: the beginning of my favourite era in Reich’s instrumental writing, starting in 1975 and culminating seven years later in the dense but delightful textures of Vermont Counterpoint for 11 flutes. During that period, Reich seemed to find the perfect balance between repetition and musicality. But as the musical content of his pieces began to get more complex (and more acceptable to the mainstream), a key question began to loom larger and larger: where was minimalism heading? What future could there be for a movement that depended on stripping everything down to basics?

Different composers found different answers to that question. Reich never took the route into film music that Michael Nyman chose; he never became a writer of tonally conservative symphonies, operas and concerti, as Philip Glass did. He has held on to his pioneer spirit, and Runner – written by a composer in his eighties – still sounds like the work of a young, forward-looking man. But it doesn’t quite feel like necessary music, in the way that Music for 18 Musicians still does. You can only be responsible for so many direction-changing masterpieces, I suppose. It was glorious, at any rate, to see the RFH audience give this early work a prolonged standing ovation – just as it received at the official New York premiere on 24 April 1976. But it was also sobering, walking back across Hungerford Bridge, to reflect that it had gone from being a landmark of avant-gardism to a much-loved popular classic within the time span of my own adulthood. l

Music for 18 Musicians
Steve Reich
Royal Festival Hall, London SE1

This article appears in the 22 February 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Islamic State