It doesn’t seem so very long ago that he – along with Philip Glass, Terry Riley, La Monte Young and a few others – forged a musical style that represented a clear break from the high-modernist ethos of the Post WWII-era.
And the audience that packed Toronto’s Massey Hall on Thursday evening was proof of Reich’s half-century presence at the forefront of the new music scene. There were old, white-haired hippies in blue jeans. There were college-aged hipsters, sporting beards and man-buns. A palpably cool vibe in the hall cut across generations.
Clapping Music, from 1972, which opened the program, was performed by Reich (yes, he was there) and the Toronto-based percussionist Russell Hartenberger – a member of Toronto’s Nexus percussion ensemble, and a long-time associate of Reich. The piece, scored entirely for clapping hands, is more a musical exercise than a piece of music. It’s clever, but one-dimensional.
Tehellin, composed in 1981, was the most musically endearing piece on the program. Scored for a quartet of female vocalists (Lesley Bouza, Michelle DeBoer, Carla Huhtanen and Laura Pudwell) and an ensemble of winds and percussion, it’s a setting of three psalms. This is bright-hued music, harmonically inventive and multi layered. Conductor Leslie Dala held the ensemble together well, for a crisp performance.
The second half of the program was entirely given over to Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, from 1976. This is “hardcore” minimalism – relentlessly thrumming along for almost an hour, like some great, sonorous machine.
After about 20 minutes of this, I was bored. And after half an hour, I began to feel trapped. Looking around the hall, I saw that many people were leaning back in their seats, blissfully allowing the music to wash over them, as though it were the sonic equivalent of a Magic Fingers massage chair. I tried to do the same – and I can’t say with certainty that I didn’t simply fall asleep for a while. Eventually Music for 18 Musicians ran out of steam, and I was glad it did.
I take no great pleasure in writing an unfavourable review of a Steve Reich concert. So allow me to say a few nice things about his contributions to contemporary music.
Back in 1970 Reich wrote a short manifesto, “Some Optimistic Predictions About the Future of Music.” neatly explaining what he hoped to see happen. Among other things, he predicted the return of tonality, of a clear rhythmic pulse, and the demise of electronic music. (See here.) All of these things came true – at least for him and the substantial number of composers who welcomed his influence. If it weren’t for Reich and the other pioneers of minimalism, perhaps such composers as John Adams or Canada’s Ann Southam wouldn’t have developed in quite the same fascinating ways that they did.
And, since the 1980s, Reich himself has transformed his own style. A much different impression of Reich’s art would have emerged if this program had featured some of the composer’s music of the last 30 years. In the last three decades, Reich has embraced a kinder, gentler kind of minimalism, engagingly humanistic in its form and content.
I’ll conclude with a YouTube clip of the kind of Reich I very much admire. The piece below is called Nagoya Marimbas, from 1994. This music is friendly, playful and spontaneous – quite different from his earlier works. Have a listen!
© Colin Eatock 2016