Review Summary: A fascinating snapshot of the career of one of our very best composers.
Reich's most important action in his early career was indeed not much of an action at all: when the tape recorders set up for his piece "It's Gonna Rain" slowly fell out of sync, he simply decided not to stop them. In a move that could have been the result of laziness, extreme patience, or innocent interest, Reich allowed the tapes to naturally fall in and out of place with each other, and didn't do much to change the mechanical process. The end result was operatic, frightening, and innovative; an almost "necessary" experiment that, if not by Reich, would have been done by someone else, one way or another, a few years later. However, for many listeners of less, ahem, experimental music, the piece also came off as a little too
perfunctory; music to stand back and admire rather than legitimately enjoy. As well, much of Reich's early works were pierced by this kind of "programmed" precision, from the almost unbearably tonal "Four Organs" (which had the honor of nearly setting off a riot at its 1973 Carnegie Hall performance) to the pseudo-phasing techniques of "Clapping Music". His extreme interest in shifting and phasing rhythms peaked with 1971's "Drumming", a 90-minute all-out combination of phasing and polyrhythms, the piece represented the apex of his use of patterns, mechanics, and complicated rhythms in music.
However, "Drumming" was also special in a very different way: it drained Reich of the fascination of the cold and rigid processes that had determined the direction of his earlier works. By the mid-'70s (and, especially, his masterpiece "Music for 18 Musicians"), the mechanism-obsessed Reich had virtually disappeared, leaving in its place a fantastic and finally completely accessible composer, capable of stunning beauty. Right after the 1976 premier of "Music for 18 Musicians" in New York, Reich set to work on making a piece that, well, kind of sounded like what came before it. Reich's new piece, entitled--get ready for this--"Music for a Large Ensemble", featured much of the same uplifting, marimba-injected progressions that its predecessor had. However, in comparison to "Music for 18 Musicians", "Music for a Large Ensemble" is also considerably condensed; only fifteen minutes as opposed to "Music for 18 Musicians", which skirted around an hour. Criminally ignored upon release, the composition acted as an excellent introduction to some of Reich's more accessible works; a beautiful exercise in bright, colorful tones and elaborate rhythms.
In 1979, the year "Music for a Large Ensemble" premiered in Utrecht, Reich got working on "Octet" (later rescored in 1983 as "Eight Lines"), another piece that would utilize vivid tonality and overlapping pulses. However, unlike "Music for a Large Ensemble", the piece has more of a focus on pianos and shimmering flutes, rather than the marimba mainstays of many of Reich's '70s pieces. As well, "Octet" has more of a slow-build feel than either of the pieces that preceded it, showing Reich's ever-apparent mastering of restraint. "Octet", being slightly longer than "Music for a Large Ensemble", also takes longer to reach its eventual ending, perhaps stretching the patience of less enduring listeners.
However, both "Octet" and "Music for a Large Ensemble" seem totally accessible in comparison to "Violin Phase". Strangely grouped together on this recording with his later pieces, the 1967 composition was more or less "It's Gonna Rain" for solo violin, a phasing piece that lets its process unfold quite gradually. The rhythms contained within become a fascinating progression; as with many of Reich's early works, you can hear the process behind the music unfold. However, even as more rhythms and melodies are introduced, the piece, being fifteen minutes of mostly the same violin line repeated, becomes a little grating.
However, this is barely a problem, considering the wealth of excellence contained within this package. Though it may seem a bit random, the three pieces contained within this recording act as a fascinating snapshot of the career of one of our best living composers. To hear a piece evolving is fascinating, but to hear the career of a composer doing the same is something else entirely, and Octet/Music For a Large Ensemble/Violin Phase
allows you to examine this enthralling process.