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Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Steve Reich, The ECM Recordings, 3-CD Set

The three albums recorded by Steve Reich for ECM beginning in 1978 can be said without exaggeration to have changed the face of modern music for good and all. Terry Riley's "In C" was a first masterpiece of the so-called minimalism in the late '60s. Reich had established himself as a major member of this school with the phase electronics compositions "Ain't Gonna Rain" and "Come Out," then began his gradual climb to instrumental profundity with such works as "Four Organs." By the time he had completed and recorded "Drumming" for DGG he had shown us all how via sound color and phasing and a kind of neo-African ethos he could create long works that held interest with exhilarating forms-in-motion as unprecedented as they were brilliant.

All this sets the stage for Reich's extraordinarily fruitful involvement with the ECM label. To honor Reich's 80th birthday year the three albums he made for ECM: The ECM Recordings  (ECM New Series 2540-42), are available now as a special three-CD box set that includes an illuminating 43-page booklet with the original liners and a fine retrospective essay by Paul Griffiths.

The first album for the label contained the landmark extended work "Music for 18 Musicians." It marked a breakthrough for Reich and for minimalism as well. Here was a doubled-sided, full length work that took Reich's neo-African, pan-world idea of extended rhythmic-melodic form and developed it with a sectional approach to interrelated, pulsating thematic counterpoint. The part writing used extremely inventive melo-rhythmic cells, each with intrinsic interest that made their repetition seem desirable and as a shifting interlocking whole gave the listener a full-dimensional panorama of driving lyricism.

Like Riley's "In C" the motifs sounded especially well together. Reich sequenced the whole to proceed to ever-altering motival combinatory stations, some in a line of logical-affective development and others marking the beginning of shifted new beginning points.

He created new form out of modulating harmonic clouds hovering over foundational pedals in conjunction with urgently dynamic rhythmic sophistications, varying ensemble colors and melodic brilliance. Virtually anyone (like myself) who had been following minimalism to that point recognized and embraced the music as a fully satisfying way to proceed. Nothing was quite the same afterwards.

Indeed the album, so the liners tell us, sold a brisk 100,000 copies, unheard of for such music at that point. And it established Reich for good as a major composer of our times, truly.

The two albums that followed over the next several years on ECM continued along the lines of the brilliant first one. Octet - Music for a Large Ensemble - Violin Phase redid one of Reich's most compelling "phase" period works with Shem Guibbory holding forth spectacularly on multiple overdubbed violins. The other two works continued where "18" left off, crafting further period-oriented ensemble fireworks. For whatever reason, "Music for a Large Ensemble" has never been recorded again to date, and that makes this volume that much more essential.

The third record, Tehillim, gave us Jewish liturgical minimal music as striking for its vocal writing as "18" was for its ensemble instrumental inventions.

A vocal quartet engages in some of the most moving contrapuntal writing of our era, and a large ensemble reinforces and expands what they are doing for a music where repetition is utilized with through composed and song structured form for yet another kind of sound, yet another aspect of the Reich approach, equally brilliant and memorable.

Of course there have been many great Reich works following this ECM period, but surely these three albums set the pace for all that came after. The performances have never been topped, though there have been some excellent versions of much of this music in the years that have followed. But on all counts, this set is essential.  If you don't know so-called minimalism very well, get this set; if you don't know Reich well, get this; and anyone else who might not have the music...just get this!

Essential, period. And an essential period.

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