Steve Reich: Octet/Music for a Large Ensemble/Violin Phase (ECM New Series 1168)

Steve Reich
Octet/Music for a Large Ensemble/Violin Phase

Russ Hartenberger marimba
Glen Velez marimba
Gary Schall marimba
Richard Schwarz marimba
Bob Becker xylophone
David Van Tieghem xylophone
James Preiss vibraphone
Nurit Tilles piano
Edmund Niemann piano
Larry Karush piano
Steve Reich piano
Jay Clayton voice
Elizabeth Arnold voice
Shem Guibbory violin
Robert Chausow violin
Ruth Siegler viola
Claire Bergmann viola
Chris Finckel cello
Michael Finckel cello
Lewis Paer bass
Judith Sugarman basse
Virgil Blackwell clarinet
Richard Cohen clarinet
Mort Silver flute
Ed Joffe soprano saxophone
Vincent Gnojek soprano saxophones
Douglas Hedwig trumpet
Marshall Farr trumpet
James Hamlin trumpet
James Dooley trumpet
Recorded February 1980 at Columbia Recording Studios, New York; March 1980 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg (Violin Phase)
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Have you ever repeated a word over and over again until it loses meaning? Cognitive science calls this “semantic satiation.” Now imagine that someone could do the same thing for instruments and you’ll have a clear idea of the power of a Steve Reich composition. In this selection of three longer examples, we get exactly that: an unraveling of music’s genetic code, transformed from within. It is for this more than any other reason that I’ve always been wary to use the word “minimal” in reference to Reich’s music, which is endlessly complex and never fails to engender new discoveries with every listen.

The instruments in Music For A Large Ensemble fit perfectly in a vast sequence of aural DNA, as logical as it is mystifying. Every voice is given ample breathing room in a piece that, while densely layered, is as airy and ordered as a puff of windblown dandelion. Strings waver with the unrelenting heat of a desert sun, horns ebb and flow in a brassy wash of equilibrium, and a vibraphone rings out like magic over all. Although the music moves mechanically, its feel is decidedly organic. This earthiness is maintained in the Violin Phase, which consists of a repeated motif that, as with all of Reich’s “phase” pieces, is knocked just slightly out of alignment by the doubling voice, like two turn signals rhythmically staggering and realigning. This is the most localized of Reich’s phases, clearly rooted as it is in the bluegrass fiddling tradition. The violin grinds like dirt or sand, small particles swirling and separating yet holding fast to some invisible predictability. After two such strikingly different pieces, the Octet somehow comes across as the most intimate. The inclusion of wind instruments, and in particular the clarinet and flute, adds a crystalline contrast in texture and melodic shifts, bringing us to a glorious and sudden silence.

Albums like this and Music for 18 Musicians will easily make one lose track of time. I am so often taken aback when this music ends, for it pulsates with such a robust sense of perpetual motion that its effect always seems to linger somewhere inside me. It is a tessellation in sound, each image shifting through time and space like an Escher print, so that what begins as a diamond ends up a bird in flight. Naturally, the sheer precision required to play Reich’s music is a feat in and of itself. That such a synergistic cast of musicians could arise out of the work of one composer is by all turns spectacular, and when so lovingly recorded their cumulative effect is all the more heightened. This is music that finds its expansiveness internally, charting the endless waters of our biological oceans until we come to our beginnings anew.

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