Over the past year, I watched Shostakovich 100 come and go with respectful indifference, assembled a top ten tunes list for John Coltrane's 80th, and harbored open hostility toward Mozart 250. The occasion of Steve Reich's 70th birthday, however, inspires a more personal appreciation — and not just because we're celebrating someone who is actually still alive for a change.
For some reason, at the impressionable age of 16 or so, I was regularly tuning into the radio show "System Considerations" on the local independent (very independent) radio station WORT on Sunday nights, where I absorbed all manner of new, electronic, experimental, and generally bizarre music (and sometimes just plain noise).
One (very late) night, they played the newly released Nonesuch recording of Steve Reich's The Desert Music — specifically the final movement, which the composer has aptly described as "out on the plain, running like hell." I was fascinated and amazed (and wide awake). Sure, some of the usual minimalist traits were there — repetition, pulsing rhythms, modal harmonies — but there was a sharper edge and a humanity to this music that really pulled me in.
Thanks to the public library, I soon also became obsessed with the Steve Reich ECM LP with a few bars of the very cool-looking Octet score on the album cover. This piece was even more intoxicating and engaging, with its relentless double piano pulse, strident extended string tones, woodwinds fading in and out of the texture, and those almost jazzy flute solos.
Soon enough, I was devouring Reich's entire recorded output — first on LPs, and then again on CDs: Drumming, Music for 18 Musicians, Six Pianos, Vermont Counterpoint, Come Out, It's Gonna Rain, and even the stripped-down, barely listenable, riot-inducing Four Organs.
Friends and family were amused, confused, and/or concerned by this "record stuck in a groove" stuff, calling it "piano tuner music" and other less friendly things. But I was endlessly intrigued by Reich's gradual processes, with repetitions subtly shifting over time and changes in harmony, rhythm, and texture unfolding almost imperceptibly.