The Symphony Celebrates Steve Reich

by Larry R Larson

If music were physics, composer Steve Reich would have won a Nobel Prize for fundamental contributions to his field.

Northern California has a long history of nurturing innovative composers. John Adams, Lou Harrison, Ingram Marshall, Andrew Imbrie, Terry Riley and Pamela Z, among many others, have called Northern California home. The Kronos Quartet has been a vital Bay Area fixture for decades and through its international touring and recording has helped expand the reach of local composers.

On first blush, one might think of Steve Reich, whose 80th birthday is the focus of the San Francisco Symphony's opening week of concerts, as a New York "downtown" composer, as he first gained fame along with fellow minimalist Philip Glass in the lofts of SoHo. However, Reich has important musical roots here. He received his masters degree at Mills College in the early 1960s, where he became interested in the musical ideas of Terry Riley, who was also at Mills creating works based on evolving patterns. Reich's inspiration was to apply Riley's techniques to recorded phrases, which led to works such as "Come Out" and "It's Gonna Rain," two of his masterpieces.

It is impossible to overstate how important these early works were, both for the further development of Reich's music and, more broadly, for the history of music. Numerous composers at that time were discovering taped and found sound and incorporating those elements into their work, but Reich extended the technique to create evolving rhythms and musical structure. Many contemporary electronic composers today, including DJs in the EDM scene, namecheck Reich and even remix some of his records, the ultimate compliment. In many ways he helped invent the idea of a recorded loop as a rhythmic element. If music were physics, Reich would have won a Nobel Prize for fundamental contributions to his field.

Reich took the approach he developed with tape, that of process and repetition, and applied it to conventional instrumentation. The result was a series of works like "Music for Eighteen Musicians," a piece that fused stasis, pulse and change into a sublime 50 minutes of music of a type no one had previously imagined. Later works, like "Different Trains" and "WTC 9/11, combine recorded voices with conventional ensembles using some of these same techniques.

Michael Tilson Thomas, another critical Bay Area connection, has played and conducted Reich's music around the world since the 1960s. Under Thomas' direction, the San Francisco Symphony has recorded some of Reich's most ambitious pieces; Thomas is likely Reich's most important champion in the orchestral world.

The Symphony's Reich celebration spans four evenings. The first, the Symphony's opening night Gala, includes Reich's "Three Movements"-clear evidence of Thomas' commitment to Reich's work, considering that substantial works are not often played at the Gala. The next concert, performed on consecutive evenings with works by Aaron Copland, features two of Reich's most ambitious works: the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Double Sextet" (featuring eight blackbird, one of the world's premier new music ensembles -- listen to them play Music for Eighteen Musicans above) and the orchestral "Three Movements."

The final concert, which includes some of Reich's music for ensembles, such as the "Double Sextet" (again performed with eight blackbird), has a clear gravitational center: In recognition of the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the Kronos Quartet plays "WTC 9/11," a work for string quartet and voices (air-traffic controllers, firefighters, neighbors) that were recorded on that searing day. Although Reich was out of town when the towers fell, he and his wife lived near Ground Zero, and "WTC 9/11" is his attempt to recognize the enormity of what happened to his and our worlds. The work, which traces some of its sampling techniques to Reich's time at Mills, has received universal praise as a cathartic musical response to profound tragedy.

Sept. 7, 9 → 11

Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness

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