The most interesting moment of Music By Steve Reich: A Conversation and Concert at Melbourne’s Metropolis New Music festival, came late in the evening. Surprisingly, for a night of music and conversation, it was neither spoken nor played.
Lisa Kaplan is the pianist for contemporary music group eighth blackbird, who are in Melbourne to act as the central drawcard for the festival. At this moment, she was trying to explain what a ‘phase’ was, and what it meant for Steve Reich’s music. She paused for a moment, and laughed. A phase, she explained, is an easy thing to recognise when you hear it, but difficult to summarise simply.
Instead, Kaplan placed her two palms together, fingers outstretched, left wrist facing the audience. Then, she slowly moved the fingers of one hand out from behind the other. At first, there were five fingers in profile. Then, ten slowly emerged. Then ten became five again.
This was a phase. This was Steve Reich.
It is no small achievement to have a composer like Reich visit Melbourne for the Metropolis festival. Reich, according to The Guardian, is one of “a handful of living composers who can legitimately claim to have altered the direction of musical history.” Along with Phillip Glass and Terry Riley, he was instrumental in forming what is now known as minimalist music, and more importantly, in pushing the classical world beyond the twelve-tone composition it had been fastened to for so long.
Reich’s epochal moment as a composer — perhaps minimalism’s moment, too — came in 1965, when he was sitting in front of two tape decks cued with a recording of Brother Walter, a Pentecostal preacher, delivering a particularly forceful sermon. Reich’s intention, so the story goes, was to cut rapidly from one recording of Brother Walter to the other, creating a shift from left to right. “It’s gonna rain!” was Brother Walter’s selected phrase.
But Reich had lined the tapes up incorrectly, and when he hit play, he discovered that they were slightly out of sync, and one was going moderately faster than the other: “It’s gonna-gonna rain-rain it’s-it’s gonna-gonna-gonna rain-rain-rain!”
Phasing became a kind of musical signature, or intellectual hallmark for Steve Reich, as much of a symbol of the man and his music as the baseball cap he is apparently never seen without. Beyond Reich’s early tape music like It’s Gonna Rain, the logic of the mis-timed tapes plays out on a broader scale. While only one piece performed at the concert was strictly phase music (1971’s Drumming), Reich’s fascination with the time and space of music framed the whole concert.
This is what Kaplan was trying to demonstrate with her finger silhouettes: that Reich’s music multiplies and turns in on itself in equal measure. Take, for example, Clapping Music (1972), which Reich himself and percussionist Eugene Ughetti opened the evening with. Reich is keen to emphasise that Clapping is not a phase, but rather a row (like primary school performances of Row, Row, Row Your Boat), where the music shifts in more measurable chunks than in a phase. Yet the same logic applies: the music turns in on itself, creating a hypnotic space of musical texture solely between the rhythms of two performer’s claps.
This was an exceptional evening of music. All of Reich’s pieces were performed by clearly top-tier musicians — a mixture of eighth blackbird members and Melbourne Symphony Orchestra regulars — and the evening was programmed and executed immaculately. The weaker part of the programme came after interval, which featured Reich in conversation with three members of eighth blackbird, who are clearly better musicians than they are interlocutors. Still, Reich himself was engaging and insightful, even if a third party would have been better placed to lead proceedings.
The centrepiece of the evening, however, was Reich’s Different Trains (1988), a three-movement piece for string quartet and tape that ended the first half of the programme. The Grammy Award winning composition deals with dark and complicated material, and in a sense is one of Reich’s darkest and most complicated pieces (only perhaps outstripped in these stakes by his grim WTC 9/11).
Different Trains is at once personal and incomprehensible: it is, in a sense, a reflection on Reich’s own train journeys as a child, visiting his separated parents in New York and Los Angeles. In the first movement, America — Before the War, he uses recordings of his governess and a train porter to structure the piece, just as in It’s Gonna Rain. But this time, the recordings sit alongside played music and other recorded sounds (train whistles and sirens), with the string quartet picking up on melodic snatches of Reich’s taped interview phrases. They take up their brief melodies here and there — From Chi-cago. From Chi-cago to New Yo-ork — playing with and without the voices superimposed on top.
The piece is also Reich’s reflection that, as a Jew, if he had been in Europe he “would have been taking very different trains,” as he is fond of saying in interviews. The second and third movements (Europe — During the War and After the War) concentrate on this idea. Instead of his governess, we hear three Holocaust survivors, with far more disturbing phrases, like “they tattooed a number on our arm”, and “black crows invaded our country”.
The way that the string quartet takes up on these phrases is extraordinary. Each time a new phrase is introduced, it is captured by one of the string instruments and repeated wordlessly. Thus in Different Trains, we can most clearly glimpse the power of Steve Reich’s music: these ideas, these horrible events that are too powerful to speak directly to, are consumed by the repetitious structures of the string quartet, each word folding into the array but not being stripped of meaning. Through these phases, these repetitions of semi-abstract vocal snatches as spoken by Cello, or by Viola, we have the meaning fed back to us, interacting with each element to form something else entirely.
These are the fingers of Kaplan’s hands, moving from five digits to ten and back again. This is the genius of Reich: we can clearly hear the Cello calling “black crows” long after the recording of the survivor’s voice has stepped back from the piece. In Reich’s music, shadows emerge from patterns.
When, at the end of the evening, it was mentioned that Reich’s current project is inspired by two Radiohead songs, it could not have been more appropriate.
The two songs? Everything in its Right Place and Jigsaw Falling Into Place. Of course. That’s Steve Reich.
Daniel Golding is an academic, critic, and cultural commentator. He is currently undertaking a Ph.D. in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne. Daniel writes commentary on videogames and gaming culture for Crikey. He also regularly writes for Hyper Magazine, and has also been published in PC PowerPlay, The Conversation, Kill Your Darlings, Kotaku, The Drum and IGN.