An Introduction to the Music of Steve Reich

American Composer Steve Reich

“You’re asking me how a watch works. For now, we’ll just keep an eye on the time.” – Sicario.

Broadly speaking, the type of music that American composer Steve Reich writes is nuanced, layered and hypnotic. Though I lack the depth of musical comprehension necessary to articulate the mathematics behind why his stuff works, having listened compulsively to many of his orchestrations, at this point I can safely say that it just does.

As an introduction to Steve Reich, let’s start here:

This short piece is String-heavy, and wonderful for it.

Great, right? And that barely scratches the surface of what he’s capable of, so stick with me.

Reich is known for writing much lengthier musical compositions which feature sections that flow seamlessly from one into another. It’s here in these longer pieces that the listener can really get lost in the melodic movements, which, though it’s difficult to describe exactly how this audible magic is performed, just makes sense when you hear them.

To that end, try this longer recording on for size. Sit back and allow the music to wash over you, and let it take you out to sea:

A live performance of “Music For 18 Musicians.” Just amazing stamina and coordination.

That was over an hour of continuous musical exercise. I mean that literally, too, as I don’t think those musicians truly put their instruments down during the entirety of the performance. From my outsider perspective, my impression is that any group of artists that choose to summit the mountain that is a Steve Reich orchestration is straight up flexing on all other people in the musical craft.

To venture even further out of my element in order to offer an uneducated opinion, I classify what Reich creates as something akin to scripted jazz. He facilitates a jam session for the performers who choose to tackle his music. Reich has a knack for composing awe.

Anyway, here’s more of his superb work, in the form of an official album recording that examines the before, during and after of World War II from the perspective of the people who suffered through it:

“Different Trains”, from 1989. A true achievement of genius.

Did you listen to the whole thing? At least promise you’ll come back to finish it. It won a Grammy in 1989 for crying out loud!

As an aside, can you believe the caliber of the linked music is actually getting better as we go?! Me neither!

To speak about the man himself, Steve Reich is an utter gem. To illustrate this, a few years ago he participated in a free-flowing conversation alongside Stephen Sondheim – another brilliant musical mind whom I’ve gushed about elsewhere – and to watch the pair of them shootin’ the shit while reminiscing about their exceptional and varied work and life experiences is a marvelous way to spend a few hours.

In particular I want to single out the superb rendition of Sondheim’s song Finishing the Hat that’s performed at the very beginning of the video.

Reich and Sondheim have amazing rapport with one another, and it’s clear they both had a wonderful time sharing each other’s company that evening. As a sidenote, I’m in awe that both of their brains are able to fire on all cylinders for the duration of the event, given that at the time of the recording Reich was 79 and Sondheim was 85 – as if we needed more evidence that these two men are genuine outliers within the human species.

Anyway, the ultimate takeaway I want to express is that while Steve Reich has been a powerful figure in shaping the future of music as a whole, he hasn’t done it in a controlling way. Rather, he’s been wholly focused on his process – finding inspiration, locating collaborators, and applying as much effort toward his passion as anyone alive – and the revolutionary and foundational outcome was actually more of a byproduct.

Given that it took me personally until Reich was 84 years old before I became aware of him, I have a strong suspicion that he’ll gain popularity as time passes, and one day his genius will be much more widely appreciated.

Until then though, it’s probably time I rolled up my sleeves and figured out how the watch works.

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