Steve Reich casts a significant shadow over 20th and 21st century music. As a central figure in the development of minimalism – alongside Terry Riley, Philip Glass and La Monte Young – Reich’s influence carries the rare distinction of being evident in both Art and Popular musics. His works have been recorded or performed by a range of artists as diverse as the Kronos Quartet, Bang on a Drum, Sonic Youth and Johnny Greenwood. Just shy of his 80th birthday, Reich continues to compose – his latest work, “Radio Rewrite” draws on two Radiohead pieces (“Jigsaw Falling into Place” and “Everything in its Right Place”) for inspiration.
Whilst Reich seems intent on forward momentum, Karlrecords are happily looking back by re-releasing Ensemble Avantgarde’s Four Organs / Phase Patterns / Pendulum Music. The album – originally recorded in 1999, now edited and remastered for vinyl release – focusses on Reich’s 1968 -1970 output, predating his breakthrough pieces “Drumming” and “Music for 18 Musicians”. Four Organs / Phase Patterns / Pendulum Music also reinforces Ensemble Avatgarde’s credentials as bold flag-bearers of 20th century art music. The Leipzig based ensemble – still active after forming in 1989 – has tackled the works of Schoenberg, Cage and Stravinsky amongst other key figures.
“Four Organs” is a stark presentation of minimalist audible process. Staccato chordal stabs are elongated across the piece through a process of augmentation until there is barely any space left. Reich’s description of “Four Organs” as the longest V – I cadence in Western music is hard to dispute.
It’s a challenging and obstinate piece which infamously joined the ranks of 20th century works that caused a near riot during an early performance. Notably, Reich has not revisited this form of composition, although he performed “Four Organs” in 2014 at the 40th anniversary of Nonesuch Records. It’s inclusion on this Ensemble Avantgarde album provides a useful document of Reich’s early exploration. The organists on this album attack “Four Organs” with spirit. The maraca part however lacks the drive of the original Reich recording and thus robs the piece of some propulsion.
“Phase Patterns” reveals the kaleidoscopic swirl that would mark much of Reich’s later work. Like other pieces from this era (“Piano Phase” and “Violin Phase”) a single timbre is exploited over multiple sources, and in this case four organs are again the medium. This version is rich and vibrant.
Four Organs / Phase Patterns / Pendulum Music also features two versions of “Pendulum Music”, another distinctly process driven piece. Three microphones are suspended and swung over speaker cabinets. Each passing of the speaker cone emits a howl of feedback that lengthens as the swinging microphones inevitably slow down. The fun is in the interaction of the three mics and having two recorded album versions highlights the aleatoric nature of the composition. Reich never bothered to record a version of “Pendulum Music”, so it’s a welcome addition to the record. The two short pieces also adds a nice foil to the more sophisticated organ works.
Four Organs / Phase Patterns / Pendulum Music is not a great introduction to Steve Reich, nor is it intended to be. But for fans of the American composer it’s a fascinating look into his early works and a very satisfying listen.