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Celebrating Steve Reich

Few composers in history have had the broad and diverse influence on music enjoyed by Steve Reich, whose 70th birthday this month is being celebrated literally around the globe. In his birthplace, New York City, for example, Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center and Brooklyn Academy of Music are collaborating to present a month of performances. Such universal acclaim and respect is coming only after a decades-long struggle to gain recognition for his unique, outside-the-box musical magic.

In 1970, he went to Ghana to study African percussion and brought back magnificent indigenous drums. But when Reich returned to the United States, as he once told me, he decided that he “shouldn’t compose for anything that couldn’t be bought at Manny’s,” the Midtown Manhattan instrument store.

At the same time, it dawned on him that as much as he loved African percussion and other music traditions from around the world, he knew very little of his own Jewish traditions. So he set about discovering what Judaism had to teach him, too. The result has been a series of works inspired by his renewed commitment to his Jewish identity, starting with “Tehillim” and continuing through his new work inspired by the death and life of Daniel Pearl and the biblical Daniel.

Reich is the proudly and publicly Jewish founding member of the musical movement known as the “Minimalists.” But he hates that moniker, because, although it describes his deliberate simplicity of means, it doesn’t convey the richness and depth of his music. Perhaps the best introduction to his work is “Different Trains,” a masterpiece for tape and string quartet. Like other works inspired by trains, such as Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” the work has an inexorable momentum, but to much different effect.

“Different Trains” is a summation piece, bringing together three main strands of Reich’s work. First there his trademark use of rhythmic transposition, building an entire musical edifice from rhythm “cells,” as much inspired by medieval “hiccup” (or in Latin, “hocet”) techniques as by traditional African drumming. The irresistible, driving energy brings out an almost reptilian consciousness of pattern recognition, the fleeting, telling details, which change within a repetitive environment. Second, he derives his melodic materials from actual speech, isolating the speakers’ subconscious choice of pitches — returning melody to its original source, in the fabric of spoken language, music as heightened speech. Third, there are his formal conceptions which make his social and philosophical engagement as concrete as possible — in this case, his autobiographical Jewish identity: As a child he was shuttled back and forth between his divorced parents in Los Angeles and New York by train.

Reich makes the connection that if he had been born in Europe, his train travel would have been to a Nazi death camp. Very different trains indeed. The first movement is America before the war. The middle part is the Holocaust. The last movement is after the war. The use of actual train whistles simultaneously enhances the sense of reality and the musical structure, similar to the way Beethoven did (though to much different effect) in the birdsong cadenza of his “Pastoral” symphony.

On the occasion of his 70th birthday, let us add our voice to the chorus acknowledging a hard-won life’s work, remarkable by any standards.

Further information about the worldwide celebrations, performances and works can be found at (www.reich70.com)[www.reich70.com ] and (www.stevereich.com)[www.stevereich.com].

Raphael Mostel is a composer. His most recent composition, “Night and Dawn,” commissioned to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Holland’s liberation from the Nazis, was premiered by the brass of the Royal Concertgebouw and Chicago Symphony orchestras.

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