Writing about Steve Reich’s music feels like writing about a family member or a childhood friend: there are too many stories and too many strange intimacies to really create a coherent narrative. I first discovered Reich as a teenager: I’m pretty sure Music for 18 Musicians was the first album I bought, and then I got deep into it very quickly.
I remember saving what seemed like a fortune to buy the recording of Octet, Violin Phase, and Music for a Large Ensemble — I can still picture that yellow disc, with an excerpt of the handwritten score to Octet on the cover. I had at that score with an eagle’s eye: what is the voicing of the right hand of the second piano? How does this gesture relate to that hippie flute melody? I bought the Nonesuch disc of Different Trains and Electric Counterpoint and listened to it until I could sing the whole thing from memory; I recorded the third movement onto my walkman (this was, after all, the mid-90’s) and walked to school in the winter, tingling with the cold and the words, “And when she stopped singing they said more, more, and they applauded.”
Reich’s early music became, quite literally, the soundtrack to my life: a functional, meditative practice. I can think back on times in my life when I’ve required almost daily listenings to Music for 18 Musicians, and all of these memories come bundled with thick, intense emotions. I listened to it on the bus out of Oxford in January of 2002, during a perfect sundown after attending the perfect Evensong. I listened to it during college, late at night while writing a paper about Dickens. I listened to it on a flight to Iceland in 2006, when I bought a one-way ticket and didn’t know if I had plans to return to New York. I listened to it last night in my hotel room in London, while I reviewed a schedule whose execution is going to anger and disappoint two good friends.
Why is that music such a lightning rod for these intensities? I think part of it has to do with the simultaneous sense of something moving very, very quickly, as well as something moving very slowly: if you think about a cityscape, it makes sense: the helicopters circling a traffic accident go at one speed, the cars avoiding the accident at another, the two trains crossing the Manhattan bridge, oblivious, at another entirely. And then there is one’s own body, in jogging shorts and tank top, self-punishingly running against the wind: all of these different tempi are present in Reich. The strings are like human breath, slow, and steady, and the pianos are the motors, whizzing by with crossed hands and ecstatic itineraries.
Early Reich and its glacial/hyperactive motions are one thing. But then, in High School, I discovered The Cave, Reich’s 1993 staged work about, loosely, Abraham. The work, for those of you who do not have it memorized and sing it in the shower, uses taped speech fragments from interviews of various Americans, Israelis, and Palestinians talking about Abraham, Isaac, Ishmael, Sarah, & Hagar. While its dramatic center is the near sacrifice, the emotional center is the Cave of the Patriarchs: where Adam & Eve were meant to have been buried, where Abraham buried Sarah, and where Abraham himself was buried by his (then-estranged from each other) two sons. The old testament is presented in a sort of Steve Reich take on Plainchant: the sounds of slow, deliberate touch-typing combined with a choir and a stack of mallet instruments intoning a sort of biblical Morse code.
The third act of The Cave is the first time I have ever been moved to tears by music, and I think part of the way it works so well is that the manipulative moments are long-expected bittersweet harmonies: the “tonic” of the piece, if it has one, is a pair of stacked fifths (like C, G, A?, E?) that contains both a C-minor triad as well as an A?-major one. Reich saves these chords for epic cadences: Abraham is the father of faith; peace upon him. A choir repeats and comments on some of the text fragments; an American woman descends a minor third, saying, “He bought a cave;” the choir reaches for heaven, jumping up a 7th: He bought a ca-a-a-ave! At one point, Reich does something truly badass: he transcribes an entire interview with Carl Sagan, and doubles him with strings and vibraphone at the original pitches at which Sagan spoke. It’s like something that we’d find cool on YouTube now: it’s an obsessive, amazing, awesome trick that takes advantage of a wonderful storyteller’s natural text cadences, and crystallizes them in shiny metal and delicious chords. The piece ends with three angels visiting Abraham in his tent, and his immediate hospitality to the strangers: Reich writes a tune worthy of Brahms (which includes the text, “Three measures of fine flour” — I sing this to myself in the kitchen) but with a pre-recorded violin making a constant, reassuring insect chirp on top: It’s satisfying on every level: local, global, emotional, harmonic, intellectual.
Reich, like Glass, is a composer whose style is immediately recognizable; you hear a chord and you know exactly who’s involved. Even the more recent works, whose chord structures have become much more complicated and gnarled, have an immediately recognizable brightness, spacing, and directness: listen to the first chords of City Life and then the first chords of Daniel Variations and you’ll see what I mean.
I could make a long, long list of things I’ve stolen from his music over the years but I think I’d be too embarrassed to actually see such a list in print. His music is such a reference point for me that I barely even think about it anymore; it’s as much a part of me as where I was born, where I went to high school, where I live in New York. I love hearing Reich’s influence bubble up in other people’s music, too: there is a moment in John Adams’s Lollapalooza that is pure Reich: constant maracas, a wide-open sky of fifths, a flute and piano modular melody. Michael Torke’s masterful Four Proverbs is a fierce modernization of the way Reich builds up a melody — note by note, gesture by gesture.
Every composer, no matter how twelve-tone, has written something that sounds suspiciously like Nagoya Marimbas. Almost every nature documentary rips him off bigtime: a vibraphone canon here, an insistent pulse as the frog’s air sac expands in SlóMó. One of the disappointing things, I think, about the way Reich’s music has been received in the popular imagination is that younger composers who are going to steal from Reich are more likely to take a texture than a process. Reich has a lot to offer both in terms as a process-based composer as well as a dramatic one; despite its weirdness, The Cave is a wonderfully compelling proto-opera, and I’ve always thought that Music for 18 Musicians has as much to teach about the Long Transition as does Wagner.
One of the big dumb arguments about music has to do with the relationship of surface to content. Reich’s music undoes this entire conversation at its most basic level: in his music, the surface is the content, and the content is the surface: the texture, the pacing, the big inside the small and the small inside the big. It’s unique, revelatory, and I cannot imagine a world without it.
Mr. Muhly is a composer and the youngest to ever have an opera commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.