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The Thinking Man's Minimalist at 70

Minimalist composer Steve Reich turns 70 today.
Minimalist composer Steve Reich turns 70 today.

Today is a milestone birthday for the thinking man's minimalist: Steve Reich is 70. Forty years ago, an ingenious young man from New York City was thinking about sound and repetition in new ways. He took a snippet of speech (a recording of a preacher intoning the phrase "It's gonna rain"), looped it, phase-shifted it in layers over itself and transformed it into an oddly beautiful wash of sound.

For Reich, that experiment opened a door into a new form of expression in music that would eventually be tagged as "minimalism." It was also the gateway to what are now considered his masterpieces, such as the hypnotic "Music for 18 Musicians," featured on Phases, a new five-disc retrospective of Reich's music.

As a child, Reich rode trains from New York to Los Angeles and back, and later said that the constant chucka-chucka sound of the tracks gave him a feel for the pulsating rhythms that drive much of his music. That's partly what fuels the chugging, shifting, interlocking patterns in the pianos, clarinets, marimbas, xylophones, strings and voices in "Music for 18 Musicians," but the piece's more direct inspiration comes from West African drumming and Indonesian Gamelan music.

The hour-long piece is performed without pause, but Reich divides it up into 11 sections, flanked by an intro and outro labeled "Pulses." For maximum effect, the piece should be heard in its entirety, in order to capture the full complement of drama, color and urgency. But to dive right in, head straight for Section 6, where the patterns are as thick, colorful and confusing an exquisitely woven Persian carpet. The performance is by the composer himself, with a handpicked stable of loyalists.

Listen to yesterday's 'Song of the Day.'

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.
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