Steve Reich,
"Four Organs"
& "Phase Patterns"

(Shandar, 1975; NewTone, 2003)

Although Steve Reich has no patience with those who call him a minimalist, he is one of the founders of the minimalist style of modern classical music. This re-release documents live 1970 performances of two of his pieces for organ. It is of particular historical interest. "Four Organs" is an important composition, and Reich and composer Philip Glass are among the performers.

Reich began his musical career as a bebop drummer who loved the music of Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, and his compositions still include jazz-like elements. Much of his output can be viewed as the result of a negative reaction to the academic schools of classical composition dominant in the 1950s and '60s; he believes the musical establishment took a wrong turn when it began demanding overly analytical compositional techniques and lost interest in the effect new works might have on most listeners. He cites Bach as perhaps the most technically proficient composer ever, but ultimately concerned with music's effect rather than its method of composition.

The two pieces here display techniques Reich uses often -- duplication of parts and what he refers to as phasing. Part duplication is one way he achieves a desired audio balance. He is so concerned with that balance and the way his music is performed that he tends not to publish his works. Instead he is generally directly involved in performances as both consultant and player.

"Four Organs" started with the simple idea of repeating a single chord while gradually lengthening its duration. The four organists collaborate in producing the chord while a fifth musician keeps a steady eighth-note rhythm on maracas. The organists keep holding the chord a greater number of beats, finishing at 200 about 15 minutes after starting. If you are beginning to think this is a little different from what Rambles.NET usually reviews, you are right! If you are wondering what "effect" the piece has on listeners, I'd have to say it depends -- but I wouldn't play it loudly in an apartment building. A perhaps apocryphal story claims that part way into the premier one listener shouted, "All right! I confess! I confess!"

Reich believes that repetition and slow change will enhance the listening experience because they facilitate deeper understanding. At least he believed that earlier in his career. More recent works have greater complexity and even "Phase Patterns" features more variety than "Four Organs."

Phasing starts with a simple melodic element that is repeated in the style of a classical canon or round, except that the repetitions are played at slightly different tempos. This causes the overlapping lines to change their relationships as the piece proceeds. Although the melodic material remains the same, harmony changes and so does the effect. If you listen closely, the differences can be fascinating.

Or not. In reacting to the academics, Reich may not have escaped as completely as he'd like. Certainly his music sounds very different from that of Schoenberg and his followers, and I don't doubt Reich's sincere desire to place effect above method. But the compositional technique remains intellectual rather than emotional. Listeners may have a positive reaction to "Four Organs" (or a negative one), but the piece started with the idea of a gradually lengthened repeated chord -- not a melodic phrase, catchy rhythm or tonal color. The effects on listeners are accidental outcomes of an analytical thought. Reich didn't "hear" the piece in his head before he had the idea behind it.

Although the music will appeal to a limited audience, these are historic performances of two seminal works in a major style of modern classical music. At a minimum it will cause listeners to think about the nature of music, its building blocks, its methods of construction and the emotional and intellectual reactions of listeners. I recommend it to the curious for that reason. (Note: NewTone must really believe in this as a piece of history. Total playing time is just over 32 minutes.)

- Rambles
written by Ron Bierman
published 4 June 2005

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