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
"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
"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. …