Steve Reich, born Stephen Michael Reich, October 3, 1936, in New York, New York, U.S.A., is the composer who was one of the leading exponents of Minimalism, a style based on repetitions and combinations of simple motifs and harmonies.
Reich was the son of an attorney and a singer-lyricist. He majored in philosophy at Cornell University (1953–57) and then studied composition at the Juilliard School (formerly the Juilliard School of Music) before receiving a master’s degree from Mills College (1963), where his teachers included composers Darius Milhaud and Luciano Berio. Reich also played keyboard instruments and percussion. By 1966, when he formed his own ensemble, he was already creating Minimalist compositions.
Opera, Blood, and Tears
celebrates the life in music of
Different Trains, and The Cave
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Like the works of fellow Minimalist Philip Glass, Reich’s compositions rejected the characteristic complexity of mid-20th-century classical harmony and tonality in order to make large-scale works from minimal materials—a single chord, a brief musical motif, a spoken exclamation—which are repeated at length, with small variations introduced very slowly. Early experiments with tape loops, documented in It’s Gonna Rain (1965) and Come Out (1966), allowed Reich to observe interlocking rhythmic patterns that he would later reproduce compositionally; some of his works even combined both live and taped performers. Reich drew additional inspiration from American vernacular music, especially jazz, as well as ethnic and ancient musics; he studied African drumming in Ghana (1970), Balinese gamelan music in Seattle and Berkeley, California (1973–74), and Middle Eastern chanting in New York City and Jerusalem (1976–77).
Reich’s early works included Four Organs (1970), for four electric organs and maracas; Drumming (1971), for small tuned drums, marimbas, glockenspiels, two voices, whistling, and piccolo; and Clapping Music (1972), for two pairs of clapping hands. Gradually he began to score for larger ensembles, and in 1976 he completed Music for 18 Musicians, a piece structured around a cycle of 11 vibrantly pulsing chords that is perhaps his best-known composition. Tehillim (1981) marked Reich’s first setting of a text—the Psalms, sung in Hebrew—and he followed it with The Desert Music (1984), a setting of a William Carlos Williams poem scored for 106 musicians.
For Different Trains (1988), Reich integrated fragments of audio recordings pertaining to rail travel, including the reminiscences of Holocaust survivors, with a string quartet that mimicked both the rhythm of a train and the natural musicality of the voices on tape. The piece, as performed by the Kronos Quartet, won a Grammy Award for best contemporary composition in 1989.
Reich collaborated with his wife, video artist Beryl Korot, on two multimedia operas: The Cave (1993), which explores the shared religious heritage of Jews and Muslims, and Three Tales (2002), a reflection on 20th-century technology. His composition Double Sextet (2007), arranged either for 12 musicians or for 6 playing against a recording of themselves, won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Music. In commemoration of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center, Reich composed WTC 9/11: For Three String Quartets and Pre-recorded Voices (2010), incorporating recordings of emergency personnel and New York residents that had been made on the day of the tragedy.
In 2018 his Music for Ensemble and Orchestra, his first orchestral work in more than 30 years, was performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He then collaborated with German painter Gerhard Richter on a multimedia presentation for The Shed, a cultural institution in New York City, and it appeared in 2019.
For his contribution to the development of music as a whole, Reich received the Japan Art Association’s Praemium Imperiale prize in 2006. He was also awarded the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement in Music at the 2014 Venice Biennale.
Steve Reich, one of the world’s greatest living composers, was born in 1936 to a Jewish family. When he was 1, his parents divorced. His father stayed put in New York and his mother moved to Los Angeles. As a child, he would travel between the two cities by train. Thinking of these trips later in life, it occurred to him that train travel was happening at the same time across Europe: to concentration camps. It did not take much magical thinking for him to imagine how, if he had a less lucky birthright, he would have a different life on a different train.
In 1988, Reich wrote a composition honoring that revelation, called “Different Trains.” Though it is centered by a string quartet piece, “Different Trains” is, in many ways, aligned with Reich‘s early, experimental work, both in its political theme and its grand scale. In 1964, as a young man during the civil rights era, Reich composed his watershed piece “Come Out.” The entirety of that composition is a looped recording of a young black man, Daniel Hamm, talking about the injuries he sustained when beaten by police. Reich utilized this method of tape looping in other pieces, some overtly political, some not, before he began to mimic its disorienting effect for larger orchestras.
“1940… on my birthday,” says a woman’s voice in the second section of “Different Trains,” muffled by a wheezing alarm. The piece, originally performed by the Kronos Quartet, features snippets of vocals either recorded by Reich or from various archives: his nanny who accompanied him on the train, a Pullman Porter, Holocaust survivors. It’s split into three movements, “America – Before the War,” “Europe – During the War,” and “After the War,” and each has an appropriate tenor. It begins and ends with nervousness, the violin and viola’s quick pace echoing the sound of the train wheels rolling. The samples in “Before the War” are about the vast expanse of technology—there’s forward momentum here, a locomotive industry rounding the bend to a new era. A man intones the years: “1939! 1939! 1939! 1940!” And then the sound of another horrible siren undercut by a woman with a heavy European accent. “1940. 1940. 1940. 1940. On my birthday.” We enter the second movement.
The sirens wail louder but move slower, like whatever they’re warning of will creep for a long time. In its structure, the piece is the same as the first: train sounds, audio samples. But where the first movement’s string composition imitated the freedom of Reich’s childhood, here the notes are sour. Within the body of Reich’s work, that in and of itself is unusual. So much of Reich’s music is marked by big sounds buoying big ideas—the gorgeousness of a wave cresting then hitting the shore, the miracle of nature ad infinitum. But there’s nothing beautiful here; it’s as much terror as it is music.
That’s not such a bad way to process such an unfathomable piece of history, booming and vague. The facts are easy to understand, but not so easy to feel. If you ask me what being Jewish means to me right now, I wouldn’t be able to totally answer. It feels important, ever present. It feels like how this music sounds, smart and all encompassing and tinged with timelessness—an inability to die.
The last movement of “Different Trains,” “After the War,” begins quickly, with only one stringed instrument at first, then another, this time no longer echoing the trains. Instead, they sound like people running, maybe escaping. “The war was over,” comes a man’s plain voice. And then a woman’s, “Are you sure?”
—- Excerpts from a Listening to Steve Reich’s Holocaust Opus “Different Trains” by Matthew Schnipper / Source: pitchfork
Music: Steve Reich
Text: from Torah, the Koran (Arabic) and documentary material
Video: Beryl Korot
World Premiere: 5/15/1993, Messepalast, Vienna
Act I: West Jerusalem/Hebron, May/June 1989 – 64 minutes
Act II: East Jerusalem/Hebron, June 1989 and June 1991 – 40 minutes
Act III: New York/Austin, April/May 1992 – 32 minutes
In the Bible, Abraham buys a cave from Ephron the Hittite as a burial place for his wife Sarah. The Cave of the Patriarchs, as it has come to be known, became the final resting place not only for Sarah, but for Abraham and their descendants as well. In Jewish mystical sources the cave is also a passageway back to the Garden of Eden. It is said that Adam and Eve are buried there.
The cave is of great religious significance for Moslems as well. While the Jews are descendants of Abraham and Sarah throught their son Isaac, the Moslems trace their lineage to Abraham through his son Ishmael born to Hagar, Sarah’s handmaid.
Today the cave, located in the largely Arab town of Hebron, in the West Bank, is completely built over and inaccessible. The ancient structures built above it reveal a long history of conflicting claims. One discovers not only the wall Herod erected around the cave, but also the remains of a Byzantine church, and finally the mosque built in the 12th century which has dominated the site ever since. Since 1967 the mosque built above the cave remains under Moslem jurisdiction, while the Israeli army maintains a presence at the site. Though tensions run particularly high, the site remains unique as the only place on earth where Jews and Moslems both worship.
The Cave is in three acts. In each act we asked the same basic questions to a different group of people. The basic five questions were: Who for you is Abraham? Who for you is Sarah? Who for you is Hagar? Who for you is Ishmael? Who for you is Isaac? In the first act we asked Israelis, in the second we asked Palestinians, and in the third we asked Americans.
Source: Boosey & Hawkes