The Reich Stuff

Repetition is an element common to virtually every musical style. African drummers pound out beats that conform to set patterns. Rhythm-and-blues figures such as James Brown vamp atop roiling grooves that gain power through their very immutability. Pop tunesmiths such as Hall and Oates sing melodic hooks again and again until the combination of chords and words is tattooed across your brain. Anthony Braxton and other jazz performers pen compositions that are mathematical in their precision. Techno experts from the Orb to Orbital make electronic blips and bleeps that turn back upon themselves. And, oh yes, classical composers frequently return to their strongest themes throughout their pieces. Viewed in this light, complaints about the redundancy of various songs seem foolish indeed. Without a certain amount of this quality, most music would cease to exist.

Nevertheless, few artists have delved into the fundamental concept of repetition with the fervor of Steve Reich. A minimalist who's generally pigeonholed alongside Philip Glass, Reich has probably recorded fewer notes over the course of his 30-year-plus career than some self-proclaimed rock guitar virtuosos spew out during an extended solo. But the sensations produced by the music collected on Works: 1965-1995, a massive ten-CD set just issued on the Nonesuch imprint, are varied and fascinating. Over the course of more than nine hours, Reich manages to inspire, annoy, captivate, abrade and thrill, sometimes simultaneously. But as challenging as much of Works is, it can also seem unexpectedly natural, radiating a warm, organic feel that's positively hallucinatory.

Reich was born in New York City in 1936. He took piano lessons as a child before becoming fascinated with percussion at age 14. Tutorials with Roland Kohloff, a timpanist who still plays with the New York Philharmonic, deepened his love of rhythms, but it took him a while longer to commit to music as a vocation. The degree he received from Cornell University in 1957 was in philosophy, and it was not until a year later that he enrolled at the Juilliard School of Music and began studying the art of composition more rigorously. He shifted to California's Mills College in 1961, and by the time he emerged two years later, he was thoroughly schooled in the creations of John Cage and other modernists determined to discover what music would be like if it were stripped of rudiments such as, in Reich's words, "a sense of key and cadence." But as Reich tells writer Jonathan Cott in an extensive interview included in a booklet that accompanies Works, "I had come from Bach, Stravinsky and jazz, all of which shared a very clear, demarcated pulse." He adds, "I realized that if I were going to do anything that had the least emotional resonance for myself, I had to reinstate the pulse, front and center."

Two of the pieces heard on the first disc here -- 1965's "It's Gonna Rain" and 1966's "Come Out" -- find Reich doing so with characteristic individuality. "It's Gonna Rain," for example, consists of loops of Brother Walter, a Pentecostal preacher whom Reich recorded in San Francisco's Union Square, intoning the title phrase. But rather than allowing this snippet to repeat itself in a vacuum, Reich juxtaposes it with an identical loop ever so slightly behind the first. Thus, Brother Walter's words go in and out of phase in hypnotic and unpredictable ways, echoing and reverberating eerily even as they produce strange beats of their own. More than 17 minutes of this can test one's will, and some listeners will be ready to charge into the nearest McDonald's with a loaded shotgun by the time it concludes. But those with steely nerves will discover in the aural designs sketched by "It's Gonna Rain" and "Come Out," which utilizes a similar technique, numerous provocative insights into the nature of sound.

More accessible variations on these theories also turn up on the first disc. "Piano Phase," from 1967, is built around a bright cluster of eight notes that shifts back and forth for 20 minutes, while 1970's "Four Organs" finds a quartet of keyboards slicing apart one droning chord against a backdrop of shaking maracas. Like a multitude of efforts on Works, the latter is a rerecording of the composition; it was cut in 1996 especially for this package, probably in order to dodge paying royalties to other record labels. (Over the years, Reich has been under contract to a number of firms, including ECM.) In a sense, this makes the collection a bit suspect from a purely historical standpoint. But this flaw does not prove ruinous, in part because of Reich's classical training. The new versions of older material are not radically revised in the manner of, say, Bob Dylan. Rather, Reich employs musical configurations as identical as possible to those that initially surveyed the individual pieces -- and because his anal retentiveness is part and parcel of his art, the results are akin to an orchestra under the direction of a single conductor playing a specific work a few years apart. Minuscule changes are unavoidable, but the essence remains.

The '70s found Reich incorporating more complex rhythms into his writing. "Drumming" (disc two) is a four-movement, almost-hour-long epic that is both orgiastic and extraordinarily fastidious; "Clapping Music" (disc three) is, as its name suggests, several refreshingly modest minutes of hand noises; and "Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ" rings with the lovely timbre of James Preiss's vibraphone. Reich expanded upon these notions in 1976 with what is arguably his masterwork, "Music for 18 Musicians," an epic that fills the entirety of disc four. For "18," Reich matches a vibraphone with pianos, xylophones, marimbas, maracas, clarinets, a violin, a cello and several singers whose voices are used as sheer texture. Some of its 13 sections, including pulsing passages that serve as framing devices, will remind listeners of Brian Eno's experiments in what he dubbed ambient music. But whereas Eno generally sticks to electronic instrumentation, Reich achieves his effects via acoustic means that never lose their human touch. The scores played by individual instruments are so Spartan that to hear them excised from the whole would likely be dull. But when they are overlapped for an extended period of time, they become genuinely intoxicating; your head begins swimming as if under the influence of a mild narcotic. The paintings of Mondrian provide a visual corollary. At first glance, his arrangements of geometric shapes and primary colors are prosaic in the extreme -- but look at them long enough and they begin to shimmer and vibrate as energetically as does "Music for 18 Musicians."

In a sense, much of Reich's subsequent music can be described as a refinement of his nascent achievements. Even when he's collaborating with famous people such as guitarist Pat Metheny and the members of the Kronos Quartet (who turn up on disc eight's "Electric Counterpoint" and "Different Trains," respectively), he retains his fascination with similar sounds placed in opposition to each other. But his most recent work -- particularly disc ten's "Proverbs," from 1995 -- glows with a renewed interest in romanticism that mirrors the changes fellow neoclassicist Glass has undergone of late. (Witness Glass's relatively lush soundtrack for Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast.) Perhaps as Reich ages -- he recently turned 60 -- he is rediscovering the joys of melody. But, as Works documents, it's been quite a while since his music was all that formidable. In fact, he largely left dissonance and atonality behind him in the '60s. Far from being caustic, much of his middle-period writing is as easy to take as new age music, but it's infinitely more intriguing intellectually.

To say that Works is dedicated to the proposition that less is more is to oversimplify Reich's approach: When he's got over a dozen associates hammering out a bare handful of notes, the musical repercussions are hardly subtle. Instead, think of the intricate, interlocking sonic grids at his command as a blueprint for the universe -- an atomic structure as basic as life itself. Same as it ever was. Same as it ever was. Same as it ever was.