By David Sterritt, writer of The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
How small a thought it takes to fill a whole life!"
That sentence was written by philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, but it takes on fresh meaning in "Proverb," a radiant new work by composer Steve Reich, who could use it as a motto for his own career.
"Proverb" makes those 11 one-syllable words into the text of a 14-minute piece, exploring their meaning and savoring their sound as they are sung by five voices with vibraphones and organs. Reich has been accomplishing similar feats for three decades, building impressive musical structures out of elements that appear small and modest in themselves. In the process, he has become a reigning monarch of minimalist music, which he helped discover and establish - along with similarly bold composers like Philip Glass and Terry Riley - during the 1960s. His pieces have been played by many of the world's major orchestras, and his long list of recordings will reach a culmination this spring, when Nonesuch releases a set of 10 CDs recapping his entire career. Like other minimalists, Reich enjoys cooking up pieces out of deliberately limited ingredients. His early "Four Organs" consists of rhythmic variations on a single chord, for instance, and works like the recent "Nagoya Marimbas" build excitement through repeated note-patterns played at slightly different speeds on multiple instruments. He also uses tape-recorded voices and other "sampled" sounds, shaped into musical forms by sophisticated electronic means. In addition to his taste for economy, what distinguishes Reich from many modern composers is his passion for bringing moral, philosophical, and religious concerns into his music. This goes back to early works like "Come Out," crafted from the tape-recorded voice of an African-American youth describing an incident of police brutality. "The Desert Music" took its antiwar text from William Carlos Williams's poetry, and "Different Trains" juxtaposed Reich's memories of childhood rail journeys with thoughts of trains ridden during the Holocaust by Jews like himself. His new "City Life" employs sounds recorded after the World Trade Center bombing in New York - not far from Reich's home - in 1993. Religion entered his music years ago with "It's Gonna Rain," using the recorded voice of a sidewalk preacher, and continued with the glowing "Tehillim," a 1982 piece based on Hebrew psalms. This interest reached new heights in "The Cave," about the relevance of Abraham's story to contemporary life, made in collaboration with his wife, Beryl Korot, a noted video artist. They are now collaborating again on "Three Tales," a multimedia piece about the impact of technology on the natural world. After earning international acclaim for pieces without words, why did Reich start putting so much energy into music with a strong verbal dimension? "I'd been doing orchestral things and 'new romanticism' stuff," Reich answered during a recent interview in his lower Manhattan home, "and I decided I'd had enough. I decided I had to do the things God intended me to do. I think we have our assignments, and so much time to do them in. I knew if I didn't write for the orchestra, other people would. But if I didn't write 'Different Trains,' nobody would. …