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Happy Birthday Mr. Reich

The music spanned decades and was performed within the realms of orchestral presentations, an ensemble of thirteen electric guitar players, a dance company, string quartets, and a solo performer playing in tandem with the composer’s electronic accompaniment. During the marathon concert entitled Wall to Wall Steve Reich, held at Symphony Space in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Mr. Reich stood sentinel over the shoulder of one of the sound engineers, occasionally taking over the controls to operate the faders of the mixing board while the Mivos Quartet performed his seminal piece Different Trains from 1988.


Mr. Reich also recently decided that the time had come to return to New York City.  By moving to a Lower East Side apartment from his Upstate New York home, he did a unique kind of reverse retirement, coming back to the now gentrified guts of the city where he made his name and reputation more than fifty years ago.  He is an imposing figure within the community of sound engineers who work in his sphere. Engineers universally dread that their work might not live up to his legendary expectations and exacting standards. The only rival I am aware of in this respect is none other than the mythical Karlheinz Stockhausen who was prone to choleric outbursts when his aural vision was not realized.  Steve Reich is synonymous with New York City musical culture, and the rise of minimal music, which he pioneered with Phillip Glass and La Monte Young in the 1960s. His sonic cross currents run through genres and generations.


At Wall to Wall, he had an extensive and personal conversation onstage with fellow New York musical titan Stephen Sondheim. Throughout the week of rehearsals, I heard people mention anecdotes about Reich and his music. An author whose work I greatly admire told me how he regularly listens to Music For 18 Musicians while he is writing prose. Reich has also single-handedly taken a clothing item as universal as the baseball cap and made it his signature. He is rarely seen without one and it is in his words his personal variation of a yarmulke and a symbol of his commitment to Judaism. A member of one of the orchestras wore a baseball cap to rehearsal, and I heard somebody mutter that he had a lot of nerve. What if Reich had dropped in to the rehearsal? 

Mr. Reich’s contributions have transcended the far too limited title of our greatest living composer.

He is also arguably the second “man in black”, a forgivable second place, considering Johnny Cash’s claim to the title. Others mentioned classic pieces of electronic music that used samples of Reich’s recordings, such as Little Fluffy Clouds by the British electronic group The Orb. Musicians such as Aphex Twin, Brian Eno, The Residents, Sufjan Stevens, and Sonic Youth have all lauded his work in interviews. In the context of minimal music, his work has a unique emotional engagement that makes it relatable to the layman listener.


Reich has been quoted as saying, “I write music, and I want people to listen to it and have it make some difference in their lives. When I’m fortunate for that to happen, then of course I feel very, very good about it.” He is deeply concerned with what Stravinsky said is the magnetic, and polaric attraction created by sound that transcends eras and individual musicians and composers. That being said, I saw people during the Wall To Wall concert sometimes fall by the wayside as the music, built on energetic repetition and insistent rhythmic patterns overwhelmed people’s sonic capacity and patience. I overheard a photographer telling someone in hushed tones that the music felt sadistic and sounded like the soundtrack to a migraine. The music at times sounded familiar to those versed in African and Indonesian musical signatures. Reich studied African drum and Gamelan during the 1970s. This is an interesting element to consider in the context of todays highly PC and wolfish focus on cultural appropriation. Reich and his contemporaries were not held to such account in these matters and were able to explore and integrate worldwide musical traditions and methods into their compositions, whereas today a young composer would likely be censored. Reich’s music is an interesting opportunity to examine the beneficial results of such cross-pollinations.


There is another contemporary cultural condition surrounding Mr. Reich. His near universal veneration has created multiple memetic phrases that have followed and orbited around him for years. In hallowed publications he has been called “ America’s greatest living composer”, or “he is among living composers, one who can legitimately claim to have altered musical history”. There is something disturbing and half-hearted in the way he is given his praise in these memes as a quote unquote- “living composer”, that if he were to slip the bonds of this mortal coil he would be held to different accounts because of the crowded pantheon of the eternal composers. It is as if the authors of the memes took out an insurance policy on their assessments by framing it in such terms.


I would like to take this moment to offer a new meme for consideration, in the name of myself, and Office Magazine, one that might find its way into the rare orbit of the well-traveled memes relating to Mr. Reich. Today our world demands a refined meme, for the sun rises and falls upon it.

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