The members of So Percussion spend a lot of time and energy performing Steve Reich’s music. His contributions to percussion music loom over the still-emerging genre. They are so fun to listen to, play, and discuss. When we sat down to write some thoughts on this legacy, it really came pouring out!
My experience of Reich’s music has always been first and foremost about enjoyment. The pieces I got to know first were Electric Counterpoint and Nagoya Marimbas. I immediately felt like he was speaking a musical language that I understood. Although it took years to appreciate the nuances of the music, that first listen stays with you. So that’s the part of me that’s just a huge fan.
As a student, I was obsessed with finding music that made my instruments sound compelling. A lot of percussion pedagogy in the Western tradition has been about imitating the European masters or transcribing their music into our medium. Although my appreciation for these masters runs very deep, most of their music was written for violins, voices, or pianos, and transferring it to percussion instruments was a poor substitution for the original (Bach remains an astonishing exception in my experience). Although composers like Beethoven and Stravinsky wrote ingeniously for percussion instruments within mixed groups, a group of percussion alone needed a new way of thinking to really become interesting.
For me Drumming is the single greatest accomplishment to date for percussion group. It has Mahlerian proportions (75 minutes in So’s version), and turns all the parameters of Western music on their head: bongos and marimbas govern the piece’s evolution, while singers and a flute player sprinkle melodic color on top. Despite the stereotype of minimalism as being rather static, Drumming is constantly changing and developing through stacked layers and a gradual registral climb.
Steve Reich provides an exciting musical foundation for those who want to see what drums can do. Our collective mania about his work comes from the combination of the work’s importance and its sheer fun.
Drumming: Part 1 (excerpt) with So Percussion
I first really got into Reich's music when I was a young’un at Eastman and a crew of grad students -- Alan Pierson, Ian Quinn, Payton MacDonald -- put together a bunch of his music under the guise of a new music group on campus called Ossia. We did Sextet and Tehillim and by my senior year had put together Music for 18 Musicians in a concert of his music that Reich attended. It was awesome. I played Piano Phase in the lobby, the show was packed (standing room only), and I loved the experience.
The crew of new music folks was into it, the folks in the jazz department that I was hanging out with were into it, the folks in the Balinese Gamelan group I played in were into it. Everyone was coming at this music from different angles. I was hooked on the rush of playing it and on the statements that it made.
When I got to Yale and started playing with the guys that became So, we put together every piece of his that we could when he visited the school, and played a show of a bunch of his percussion pieces (Drumming Part 1, Music for Pieces of Wood, Sextet, etc.). It was a rush to play for him then and it has led to a great relationship. We are honored to be a part of the consortium of groups for which he is writing his newest percussion piece, Mallet Quartet.
As a percussionist, Reich's music provides a pretty solid basis for much of the music we play.
As a composer (a much newer endeavor for me), I am really drawn to the directness and the powerful statements his music makes. I love thinking about how music I like to make can use his ideas as a point of departure. Reich's 1968 essay "Music as a Gradual Process" has given me much to chew on. It is a different time now, but I still love to think about what it could be like to wind up wacky musical machines programmed with some strange bits of information, and let them go until they can't go anymore. In much of the music that I've created with So, this has been the impetus. His early pieces like Pendulum Music and Four Organs hit me hard in that way. Each time I come back to them, I love the experience they give me and it gives me energy to try to create something bold and new myself.
Drumming: Part 2 (excerpt) with So Percussion
My first experience playing Reich's music was in my undergrad (University of Akron) days, playing Sextet. I think it was the first time I had ever played a piece of "minimalist" music, and it was a blast. I played it again in grad school and played one of the piano parts (which as a percussionist, is pretty fun to rock out on). As a member of So, I have had the opportunity to play pretty much everything (I am sure I have missed something, but I can't think of it off the top of my head) he has written that has percussion in it.
As a percussionist, his legacy is incredibly important because I don't think any of us would be doing what we do if he hadn't done what he did. I will always be grateful for his huge contribution to the percussion (and overall instrumental music) community.
My most memorable Reich performance was playing Music for 18 Musicians at (L)PR in the East Village. I play one of the marimba parts and I basically get to play the entire time with a small break in the middle. It's an incredibly satisfying musical and physical experience to go through.
Drumming: Part 3 (excerpt) with So Percussion
I remember really vividly the first time that I heard Reich's music. Actually, it truly was one of those life-changing experiences while listening to music. I was in the car with a bunch of friends on a long road trip, and we had just gotten done listening to Mahler's Second Symphony, during which I had drifted off to sleep (sorry Mahler! I swear, I like that music too). When I woke up I heard what I swore was ambient electronic music -- turns out it was Music for 18 Musicians.
I can recall so clearly the experience of awakening slowly into this sound world that was so fascinating and just purely enjoyable. I had been listening to a lot of the Ambient Works Volume 2 by Aphex Twin, and I was convinced that Music for 18 Musicians was an electronic piece. My friends actually had to point out to me which instruments were playing which parts before I would believe that everything was being produced acoustically.
Then I was hooked. I went out and bought both of the Reich Ensemble recordings, and I spent years trying to figure out how to put together a performance at my school -- getting four pianos into one room just wasn't happening, but I eventually had the pleasure to play the piece for the first time with So at Miller Theatre. The crazy thing for me was not just that I loved Music for 18 Musicians, it's that the piece convinced me that I could have the same kind of visceral reaction with "classical music" that I had with other kinds of music that I really loved. I remember buying a box set of the complete Haydn symphonies a few years after that first exposure to Reich and thinking to myself how drastically my musical tastes had expanded over a few years. I really have to pinpoint that afternoon in the car as a pivotal moment in my life -- maybe even the thing that really convinced me that I needed to play music for a living.
Drumming: Part 4 (excerpt) with So Percussion