The 1980s were Steve Reich's orchestral decade: his entire orchestral output begins with Variations in 1980 and Tehillim in 1981, then ends six years later with The Four Sections. He has no plans to write again for such large forces. Few composers wait until the age of 44 to compose their first orchestral work, but Reich had developed in the 1960s an idiom that differed fundamentally from anything in the symphonic literature, and he organized his own ensemble with which to develop the specialized performing skills this music demanded. Where orchestral music generally involves a complex discourse, each early Reich work focuses on a single idea which is obsessively repeated and gradually, methodically altered. Reich developed this approach in his 1966 tape piece, It's Gonna Rain, which is built entirely out of a short tape loop from a sermon about the end of the world. Layered and repeated ad infinitum, the preacher's three words evolve into a thick and slowly shifting canonic texture.
For the most part, this music was played at art museums rather than concert halls - Reich never expected to reach more conservative classical music audiences. However, one of his most unsymphonic works, Four Organs (1970), did show up on a symphony program in 1973. Scored for just five players, the piece consists of a single chord repeated hundreds of times while growing gradually longer. Michael Tilson Thomas's decision to program the work on a Boston Symphony Orchestra concert was an audacious one, and it proved to be more than some listeners could tolerate: when the program came to New York City on tour, the audience erupted in a near riot.
It's not just the austerity of this music which set it apart from the mainstream, but also the role that Reich gave himself in the composition. Here, the composer remains somewhat removed from the moment-to-moment details of the music, functioning like a clockmaker who designs a system and then allows it to play out on its own. "I may have the pleasure of discovering musical processes," Reich wrote in 1968, "but once the process is set up and loaded, it runs by itself." Thus, the composer maintains a distance from the music's expression-in It's Gonna Rain, it's the preacher who sets the expressive tone; Reich's role is essentially to frame his voice.
released September 10, 2002
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