Steve Reich – Drumming / Music For Mallet Instruments, Voices And Organ / Six Pianos (1974 / 2016)
These days, record reviews tend to operate as pointers and nodes. Where they once offered an immersion into the world of ideas, in an era when anything can be heard through a search and a click, critics are there to tell you that something exists. Aspects of the larger condition are unarguably good – listeners learn to trust their ears and decide for themselves, but with it comes a growing failure to recognize many of the complex fields which draw us in – culture, context, history, and association, to name a few. It isn’t always sound which excites us about the music we love – it is also where it sits, what it represents, and the position it takes. In many cases – when entering through these objects, we don’t intuitively like what we hear. It’s a challenge which demands time and work – willingly taken because of where we encounter it, and its proximity to our sense of self. It is here that we find the great value of art – where we grow, learn, and change.
As I sat down to write about the long awaited reissue vinyl of Steve Reich’s Drumming / Music For Mallet Instruments, Voices And Organ / Six Pianos, I wondered if I needed to do more than let people know it exists. In the history of 20th century Classical music, few works boast equal status. It is iconic – one of the most well know releases in the cannon of Minimalism, and over the course of its life, written about in countless ways. Is there anything left to say?
When you examine American Classical music, particularity during the decade or so following the Second World War, you are faced with ideas and sounds closely connected to (through extension, or reaction to) the European tradition of Serialism – founded on Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique. It was an era of complex thought, marked by difficult relationships of tone – effectively an elite context of music, sculpted for the few. During the early 60’s, a group of young composers, largely located in downtown Manhattan, embarked on a radical break – proposing a new direction for the avant-garde. With La Monte Young, Terry Riley, and Philip Glass, arguably the most important of these was Steve Reich. With music characterized by harmonic and tonal constraint, sometimes utilizing metronomic and repetitive rhythm, in time these composers came to be seen as a movement – referred to as the Minimalists.
The position and legacies of Minimalism are more complex than they first appear – particularly as it’s aged and carried on. It has become one of the great cannons within Twentieth Century Classical music – enjoying unparalleled popularity. As such, it’s easy to forget – in that sea of familiarity, the spirit in which the movement began. It was radical, confrontational, and shattered the field – unlike anything which came before, and accomplished things which few have done since – the most important of which, was the return of Classical music to populist ears. Though unprecedented in structure and approach, it also embraced a dangerous social conceit – offering what might be seen as difficult ideas and growth, without exclusion, to all.
Of course you have to recognize the music for what it is, but in the case of Minimalism, you are faced with a great deal more. It is not simply a music of intoxicating rhythms and harmonics, drawing us into profoundly moving depths. Like so many musics from the 1960’s and 70’s, it is sound and politic as one. Despite its presence in the popular landscape – having accomplished so much of what it set out to achieve, it’s important not to lose track of the radicalism of its ideas, and their relationship to the context within which they were conceived.
Steve Reich’s Drumming / Music For Mallet Instruments, Voices And Organ / Six Pianos was originally issued in 1974 by Deutsche Grammophon. With Terry Riley’s In C, it is probably the most highly regarded recording of Minimalist works, and as essential as they come. No one should be without it, at any cost. Though it has never been out of circulation, the LP box set has been out of print for decades – growing increasingly scarce and gained at great cost. The fact that its original label is bringing it back on vinyl, when much of the Classical music market remains dedicated to the CD, says a great deal. These are works for broad audiences – ears new and old. Of those in demand on recorded music’s most beautiful format, this is among the greatest of all.
Comprised of three of Reich’s most important works – stretching over three LP’s, which hold roughly two and a half hours of remarkable music, the set is one of the most important documents in the cannon of Twentieth Century music. Though only a sliver of the composer’s astounding output, in many ways, this is best place to enter his unequaled vision. Originally a drummer who studied philosophy – before pursuing composition under Luciano Berio and Darius Milhaud, of his peers, Reich saddled himself with the most tonal constraint, dedicating much his focus to possibilities found within patterns of rhythm. Among his many works, these stand with towering singularity, and arguably offer the greatest clarity toward understanding the focus of his work. They also raise an important component of Minimalism’s pursuit. For most of its history, with small exceptions within the late 19th and early 20th century when composers looked toward folk music traditions for inspiration, Classical music was an internal affair. It built upon its own accomplishments, and spoke within a defined field. Not only did Minimalism push beyond the expected context of encounter, it drew heavily on diverse musical traditions from around the world – territories beyond those viewed as an acceptable source. It was a challenge to the hegemony of Western ideals. While Terry Riley and La Monte Young turned to the Classical traditions of India, Reich looked to Africa, with its many sounds. In so doing, he helped sculpt a more democratic vision of the world, undermined the bigotry of standing value systems, and changed how we view music for good. It is within the works on this set, particularly Drumming, that this all began. The effects still ripple around us today.
In the decades that I’ve owned Drumming / Music For Mallet Instruments, Voices And Organ / Six Pianos, it has never failed to continuously unfold. It feels as radical as it always did – an unparalleled world of intertwining, hypnotic, and shifting rhythms, harmonics, and tones. I can’t imagine the vinyl edition will stay in print for long. It’s absolutely essential, so get it while you can. You can listen to its entirety below. Whether new or old, I recommend diving in and getting lost in radical works which changed the world. You can pick it up via Soundohm, or a record store near you. Get it before it goes!
Steve Reich – Drumming (Part One) 1974
Steve Reich – Drumming (Part Two) 1974
Steve Reich – Drumming (Part Three) 1974
Steve Reich – Music For Mallet Instruments, Voices And Organ 1974
Steve Reich –Six Pianos 1974