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Most of us think of classical music as frozen in the past. Indeed, the standard repertoire has been in place for more than a century, and even the music we consider “modern” (Stravinsky, Bartok, Prokofiev) is at least 50 years old. Yet a recent CD catalog reveals that nearly half its listed composers are living, even though they’re mostly unknown and their music is largely unheard. Although it may be thriving in private, modern classical music clearly has lost touch with its intended audience. Let’s face it: most people don’t like new serious music, and with good reason. It’s confusing, unfamiliar, and often downright unpleasant. Over the past century, the emotional satisfaction of soaring melodies, rich harmonies, thrilling progressions, and cathartic conclusions has been eroded by intellectual gamesmanship � first serialism trashed tonality with an attempt to equate the 12 chromatic notes, and then indeterminacy dictated content largely by chance. While such music may be governed by strict logic, it sounds like random noise, impenetrable to all but a handful of theorists (or perhaps psychics). Something vital got lost � human communication. And without that, music loses its point. Throughout his career, Steve Reich has labored mightily to change that. As fellow composer John Adams noted, Reich recognized that classical music had became too complicated and obtuse. He wiped the slate clean to reduce and simplify music to its essence, a lifeblood regulated by the natural laws of pulse and tone. Reich’s music is genuinely novel yet respects fundamental principles. While unique, it feels comfortable and accessible. For “It’s Gonna Rain” (1965), his first major work, Reich taped an ecstatic sermon about the Flood by Brother William, a fervent Pentecostal preacher, in San Francisco’s Union Square. The first part presents two brief tape loops of the title phrase (“It’s gonna RAIN it’s gonna RAIN it’s gonna RAIN it’s gonna RAIN . . . “) played simultaneously on machines whose slight speed variation causes them to diverge, gradually evolve through a complex six-minute interplay of cross-rhythms, and then regain sync. In the second movement, two eight-second loops generate an open-ended structure � as they begin to separate, each splits in two and then again, as the initial words pile atop each other to form a throbbing drone. Heard alone, the end would sound like meaningless noise, but in context makes complete sense as the culmination of a lucid process that yields a complex derivative of the original. Even detractors have to admire the work’s purity and simplicity � Reich seized upon a concept and stuck to it. Like other great art, “It’s Gonna Rain” logically arranges carefully selected material into formal perfection � nothing could possibly be changed to “improve” it. Following more work with tape, electronics, and phasing, Reich turned to the richness of acoustic instruments and intensively explored three types of music that would exert a profound influence on his work. First he traveled to Ghana, where tradition features a steady pitch and rhythm, constant variation of timbre, and substitution of beats and rests within a repeated pattern. These hallmarks infuse “Drumming” (1971), in which a single quick symmetrical 12-beat phrase (eight notes and four rests) keeps evolving over the course of an hour. Reich’s second exploration was of the Balinese gamelan, an orchestra comprising carefully matched (and exquisitely crafted) gongs, xylophones, and bells that subdivide a broad, regular pulse to achieve a rich blended sound of motion within stasis, the constant activity within an ordered structure producing a haunting, timeless effect. In “Music for 18 Musicians” (1976), Reich didn’t try to imitate the actual sound of a gamelan (and indeed scorned rock musicians using sitars for superficial exotic texture); rather, he sought to emulate its overall feel and attitude. Lasting more than an hour, “18 Musicians” maintains a basic 12-note meter of marimbas, xylophones, vibraphones, and pianos from which strands of voices, strings, and clarinets surface and then recede. To humanize the process, the emerging phrases last the length of a musician’s breath. Like his earlier electronic work, “18 Musicians” and “Drumming” boast extraordinary integrity in their rigid adherence to a process that spurns the dramatic vocabulary and syntax of conventional music. Yet perhaps these are the most challenging of his scores, offering the same basic texture throughout their considerable length while very little really “happens.” Having studied and absorbed the music of West Africa and Southeast Asia, Reich recognized that there was another ancient ethnic musical tradition of greater personal importance � his own. Thus he next explored his roots through intensive study of the language, teachings, rituals and, especially, the music of Judaism. Tracing his ancestry to the priestly tribe of Levites, Reich felt it was especially fitting for him to fulfill their historical role of singing the holy texts. Yet, while the authentic sound of chanting the Torah and Prophets has been kept alive for three millennia (just ask any bar mitzvah boy or bat mitzvah girl), the tradition had been lost of singing the intensely lyrical psalms (which, after all, are not merely poems but the texts of songs). Reich sought to recreate both their sound and spirit. “Tehillim” (1985) is not only a watershed for Reich but his most accessible work, an inspired creation that brilliantly blends primal feeling and modern insight into a direct musical bridge between the source of Western civilization and our basic modern needs and expectations that, after all, haven’t really changed all that much in 3,000 years. Thus the ingredients hark back to the earliest human music � the work begins with a single voice, clapping, and a bare tuned drum, to which are eventually added two more sopranos, an alto, winds weaving among the voices, and strings providing harmonic underpinning. In a radical break from his previous style, and out of respect for its biblical source, the text is no longer fragmented. Rather, its natural inflection shapes the melody, the overall structure, and an intricate rhythm that rests upon Reich’s trademark constant pulse. The overall sense is uplifting and fully conveys the sheer joy of musical expression � the tempo is urgent, as if to suggest a pressing need to say these wonderful things, and the finale bursts into a sustained hallelujah of unalloyed elation. “Tehillim” is one of the very few recent works that inclusively invites all its listeners into the world of simple and sincere awe and reverence that have lain at the very heart of religious expression since the advent of mankind. In the meantime, Reich enriched the emotional content of his work in “The Desert Music” (1984). Its centerpiece is a chilling apocalyptic warning: “Man has survived hitherto because he was too ignorant to know how to realize his wishes. Now that he can realize them, he must either change them or perish.” The gravity of its dire message is cushioned by a restrained musical setting and swaddled in the gentle mystery of surrounding poetry by William Carlos Williams that extols the wonder of music and could serve as Reich’s personal credo. Its surface calm may be deceptive, yet sometimes you have to speak softly to be heard. All that came before � the energizing pulse, shifting timbres, voice sampling, personal background, and social concern � was preparation for Reich’s masterpiece. At first, the concept of “Different Trains” (1988) seems like a crass conceit as Reich compares two superficially similar types of transportation � the transcontinental trains that shuttled him between his divorced parents in New York and California throughout his sheltered childhood, and those that crossed Europe to carry Holocaust victims to their doom. The materials are spare � train whistles, sirens, voices, and a string quartet (the remarkable Kronos, which commissioned the work). Their effect packs a devastating emotional wallop that grows with each hearing. “Different Trains” opens with the enthralling chugging of trains, their whistles shouting exhilarating adventure with joyous abandon. The rhythm and pitch of repeated phrases spoken by a retired Pullman porter and Reich’s aged governess generate melodic fragments which the instruments playfully anticipate and imitate. It’s a happy world, simple, wondrous, and exciting. Suddenly, the liberating whistles turn to wailing sirens, the voices to those of two Holocaust survivors of Reich’s age, and their words to shards of a narrative that can only suggest an experience too appalling to fully describe: “no more school,” “into those cattle wagons,” “Polish names.” Then, at the final phrase, “flames going up to the sky,” comes a shocking moment, not only in the frame of this piece but in the entire Reich oeuvre � for the first time his constant dynamic pulse, and then sound itself, stops. It’s a dreadful and daring concession for a musician whose lifeblood is sound � that after all is said and done, perhaps the only way to express the inexpressible is through silence. The war over, the final movement begins hesitantly and then reasserts the pace, texture, and voices of the first episode. But history has dampened the context � the sounds are much the same, but now seem drained of their former brightness and energy. At the end a survivor’s words strain to be heard, drowned by the din of progress and the pace of modern life, as the conscience of history drifts off into the mists of social indifference and cultural amnesia. “Different Trains” is a profoundly disturbing work. As Richard Taruskin observed in The New York Times, it’s nearly unique among Holocaust-inspired art � there are no heroes or villains, no flattering sense of moral superiority, no soaring tribute to the triumph of the human spirit, but only a stony invitation to reflect. Among Reich’s further work is “The Cave” (1993), a video opera in collaboration with his wife, Beryl Korot. Their ambitious concept explores the biblical legend of the cave of Machpelah, where Isaac (the father of Judaism) and Ishmael (the father of Islam) are reputed to be buried along with their own father, Abraham, the wellspring of both faiths (and their troubled modern societies). The text features authentic chanting of the Torah and Koran, and commentary by modern Israelis, Palestinians, and Americans, but they cede to two startling segments in which the cave overrides them to “speak” for itself in timeless mystery, through recordings of the ambient sounds and resonances that have dwelt there since the dawn of time. The piece ends by recounting the legend of Abraham first discovering the cave while searching for a calf to prepare as a meal to be shared with strangers � a metaphoric prayer for benevolence, openness, and peace in the Middle East. Reich’s work is available on various CDs from Nonesuch and ECM and collected in a wonderful mid-priced 10-disc box set (Nonesuch 79451). Throughout his career, Reich forged his own path to recover our human response to music. As Taruskin put it, Reich gave classical music back its youth and then its soul. Peter Gutmann is a partner at the D.C. office of Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice and can be reached at [email protected]. Music articles by the author are posted on his Web site at www.classicalnotes.net.

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