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“The early pieces were very systematic, but not mathematical,” he said. He developed this method of composition, which he calls “process music,” over the next few years until “a light bulb went off. Instead of tapes that sound like humans, how about musicians that sound like tapes?” This revelation lead to perhaps his most famous piece, Music for 18 Musicians, which premiered in 1976. It is built upon a pulse of iridescent vibraphone, over which washes sputtering, wordless voices and disjointed melodies played on strings and horns. The piece never seems to change—the rhythm is unbroken for over an hour—yet the overlain melodies are constantly evolving, creating the feeling of both moving and standing still. The piece sounds futuristic even four decades later. But despite its prescience, Reich is adamant that his work is firmly grounded in the history and theory of classical music.
“It’s hard to imagine pulsation being the least bit out of the ordinary in music," he told Jonathan Cott in the liner notes for 1996's retrospective 10-CD set Works: 1965-1995. "But in the academic world that I studied in from 1957 to 1963, the prevailing works of that time, written by Stockhausen, Boulez, Berio and Cage, were nonpulsatile—there was no regular beat. There was a simultaneous move to have no sense of key, cadence, or resting point in the music. I had come from Bach, Stravinsky, and jazz (particularly John Coltrane), all of which shared a very clear, demarcated pulse. I realized that if I were going to do anything that had the least emotional resonance for myself, I had to reinstate the pulse, front and center.”
The pulse of Music for 18 Musicians would prove immensely influential. In retrospect, it seems at one with the period's musical zeitgeist. The great developments in popular music from the late 70s onward—hip-hop, punk, and electronica—all placed a premium on rhythm, either flattening out melodic arcs or erasing them all together. As such, Reich was very much of his time. But his work also ran counter to another contemporaneous trend in music. In the 70s, synthesizers and samplers threatened to supplant human musicians. If a keyboard can duplicate the sound of any instrument, and tapes can recreate a performance cheaply and without error, what chance does a person have? How can an orchestra—which is expensive and cumbersome to assemble—survive when one person at a laptop can recreate the greatest works of Bach or Beethoven for a fraction of the price?
Reich moved in the opposite direction: instead of using machines to replace humans, he composed in such a way where humans could recreate the aesthetic qualities of electronic instruments. In some cases, he used manipulated tapes to augment traditional ensembles. Perhaps the best example is his 1988 Grammy-winning album, Different Trains, which was commissioned and performed by the Kronos Quartet. The composition used samples of clipped speech, like his early work, but in this case they tell a story: two trains, one carrying a Jewish boy from New York to California—a route Reich traveled often as a child in the 1940s—the other transporting Jewish boys across Nazi-occupied Europe to their doom. The tones and nuances of the spoken passages—“1940/On my birthday/The Germans walked-walked into Holland”; “Into the cattle wagons/And for four days and four nights/And then we went through these strange sounding names/Polish-Polish names”—are doubled on cellos, building “melody as declarations. Inflection has an effect on you; this is something we know from real life. [The samples] capture the human being. It gives them a fair shake.”
This album, and WTC 9/11, a recent piece also written for the Kronos Quartet that uses similar compositional techniques, can be understood as part of Reich’s effort to find a place for humans in his work. In music so regimented, it can be difficult to find warmth, an identifiable human presence to which we can relate. Though It’s Gonna Rain uses a man’s voice, it is frozen and alienated from the body, and repeated until the words become pure sound. Early works such as Piano Phase demand such mathematical accuracy that there's little room for the personality of the performer. Music for 18 Musicians requires a battery of instrumentalists, all interlocked like gears in a watch to create its shimmering pulse; if one musicians steps out of time, it all falls apart. Kurt Vonnegut wrote, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” Reich’s musicians so perfectly simulate the sound of machines that they risk losing their humanity.
Radiohead’s albums from the early aughts borrow liberally from Reich but differ in that they place Thom York’s vocals at the fore. The point is not melody, necessarily; in a song such as “Everything in its Right Place,” the melody is rather simple. The vocals are there to give the songs an emotional anchor. It is not the music of machines; it is the music of a man alienated within a world of machines. We can think of Radio Rewrite as Reich’s response; in true Reichian fashion, it uses instruments to mimic the vocals of Yorke. “I can hear all the singing,” Colin Greenwood, Radiohead's bassist, said at the piece’s premier in London. On November 16, as part of an evening of Reich's music at the Metropolitan Museum, New Yorkers will be able to hear for themselves one more statement in the age-old dialogue between popular and classical music.