Minimalism grows from a new technique to a sophisticated musical style.
REICH: Clapping Music; Music for Pieces of Wood; Sextet – London Sym. Orch. Percussion Ens. – LSO Live – multichannel SACD, LSO 5073, 43:06 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
The rise of minimalism in the mid-20th century was a result of a revolt against the complexity of serialism (Schoenberg, Webern and Babbitt) and the indeterminacy of John Cage. Inspired by jazz, rock-and-roll, non-Western music (Indian raga, West African drumming and Balinese gamelan), the American minimalist Fab Four (La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Philip Glass and Steve Reich) composed music that emphasized tonality and pulse over harmony and the drama of tension and release. Reich (b. 1936), probably the most sophisticated example, demanded that the listener be able to clearly understand the process of the evolution of his music. He emphasized movement within repetition by shifting rhythmic patterns of one or more instruments at different times. He uses phase shifting (analogous to canon) where two identical patterns played together gradually shift out of unison creating intricate and complex counterpoint. When the listener has the patience to concentrate on this process, the music can become a “slowly unfolding, ecstatic ritual that can become exhilarating in effect.”
The music on this CD is an excellent way of experiencing minimalism and its growth by sampling Reich’s music over a fifteen year period from 1972 to 1985. Clapping Music (1972) was composed as an exercise to demonstrate that a piece of music could exist ‘that would need no instrument beyond the human body.’ Using a single rhythmic cell of 12 beats derived from African bell-rhythms from Ghana, the composer uses phasing technique. Two percussionists clap in unison and then one shifts their pattern by one beat while the other’s beat remains fixed. The process continues until both clap in unison, completing the circle. This listener became mesmerized as the phases changed, snapping back to ‘reality’ when the unison clapping returned. The effect is clearer and more exciting when watching the music performed on You Tube, even though the sound is not as good: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BhhIZscEE_g
Music for Pieces of Wood (1973) begins to reveal how fascinatingly sophisticated Reich’s processes become when they are expanded by the number of performers and the music’s complexity. Five performers play tuned woodblocks. The highest pitched woodblock sustains a consistent metronomic pulse throughout the piece which organizes the music’s structure. The other musicians enter gradually, creating a distinct addition that becomes an intellectually captivating rhythmic maze. The ending comes suddenly, with only a subtle increase in dynamics providing a hint of termination.
The Sextet (1985) is written for percussion instruments and two keyboard players who double piano and synthesizers. In the twelve year interim Reich has added pitch and harmony to his works without mitigating the emphasis on pulse and rhythm. That period includes his masterpiece, Music for 18 Musicians (1974-76). The four percussionists play a variety of instruments: marimba, vibraphone, bass drum, crotales (small tuned brass or bronze discs struck by hard mallets), and tam-tam. The five movements are separated by discernible metric modulations. For example, there’s a sudden change in tempo and mood from the beginning movement to its successor—from mesmerizingly rapid to eerily slower. The use of the synthesizer in the first movement provides a constant background that highlights the compelling percussive diversity. The harmonic variety in the Sextet and the shifting tempos make this music an engrossing study in change that intrigues the mind and engages the senses. The final movement builds to an exciting and satisfying conclusion.
The Sextet demonstrates the growth and development of Reich and minimalism from its inception as a strict style to a sophisticated musical expression that has been the major stylistic movement of the late 20th and early 21st century. The performances and recording are excellent, but the disc is only 43 minutes in duration.