|Numinous The Music of Joseph C. Phillips Jr.|
The Numinosum Blog
Last week ended Maximum Reich, WQXR's radio fest of the music of composer Steve Reich. Hearing much of what Reich wrote over the past 40-45 years, it is hard now to describe how revolutionary his music from the late 1960s and early 1970s was. How refreshing and influential works such as Come Out, It's Gonna Rain, Piano Phase, Drumming, and of course Music for 18 Musicians were, not only on young composers and musicians but also on the listeners, who were treated to music that defied categories of classical by melding it with rock, jazz, and music from other cultures around the world into a decidedly American conception of what music could be, what I call mixed music (music consciously borrowing influences into something that is completely different from the source materials--I could argue that jazz, really was an early form of mixed music though).
Of course Steve Reich did not stop making music after those early works from the 60s and 70s. Some of his later worksDifferent Trains, Electric Counterpoint, Desert Music, Tehillim, Three Tales, and his Pulitzer Prize winning Double Sextet, expanded upon his technique and shows that he still has much that is worthwhile and interesting to say musically. However, after hearing most of the Reich output on WQXR, one question came to mind: does he write the same piece over and over? Hearing works such as his new Mallet Quartet along side Sextet or Daniel Variations along with You Are (Variations), one could make the argument that generally many of his works, particularly the later ones, do sound similar, at least on a superficial sound world level: mallet instruments and keyboards playing short repeating rhythmic cells that are layered and varying; if vocals are added, there is sometimes a juicy astringent, dissonant quality as the voicings sometimes feature close harmonies between voices, often doubled with the wind instruments; a dense texture of multiple sounds with a general energetic forward propulsion of motion. In 2003 I was part of the Steve Reich Festival in the Netherlands, where a number of seminars and symposiums were given, along with many performances of his work, in which Reich spoke about his influences, process, compositions, and philosophy of writing music. I remember one session I attended, where he was saying that he gets some criticism for writing works that "sound the same". He laughed and then asked us in the audience if we thought that was true. Now of course, no one, especially if they were thinking yes, were going to answer him right then and there. Anyway, he went on to talk about whatever it was he was discussing before that question, and the subject of writing the same piece over and over didn't come up again. And frankly, until the moment he posed the question, I hadn't really given a thought whether his works sounded the same. I just enjoyed each piece of his for what it was. However, I've been thinking about that question off and on ever since that day. Or more precisely, I've been thinking what should be a goal of any composer? Is a composer's goal the refinement and distillation of a particular language and sound, with each subsequent piece an expansion of said language, sound and technique or should a composer's language and sound change from piece to piece, with no definable connection between pieces except that the composer wrote it?
This has some relation to the last Composer Salon topic, Mixed Music and Stylistic Freedom, where I discuss this concept further, but it gets to the heart of what composer Daniel Lentz means when he said in an interview,
“style is really just learning how to repeat yourself, sometimes endlessly. If you keep changing your language and what you do, which is a very noble thing to do, nobody will know who you are?”
If a composition (or any work of art) is some representative of a composer's (or artist's) being, then can one create beyond what and who they are? After all, in Steve Reich's case, he is who he is, should he (or could he) ignore who he is and create something that doesn't sound like Steve Reich? In Western art and literature, even during the rise of Romanticism in the 19th century, which prided itself on individual expression, an artist's work was still part of a recognizable personal oeuvre. It has only been recently (20th century?), partly due to the many more sources of inspiration readily available to us than in previous epochs, that eclecticism of personal style became so prevalent. Pianist and writer Charles Rosen wrote in his book The Classical Style,
“What makes the history of music, or of any art, particularly troublesome is that what is most exceptional, not what is most usual, has often the greatest claim on our interest. Even within the work of one artist, it is not his usual procedure that characterizes his personal ‘style’, but his greatest and most individual success.”
In musics from other cultures, the idea wasn't to be so individual as to become unintelligible to listeners. From India to Arabia and Persia one gained esteem and acclaim, not on eclecticism but on how well you adhered to a particular style, yet still able to add something individual to that style (in this regards, it reminds me much of the true spirit of jazz). Generally the practice could be described by the famous saying of Goethe,
"In der Beschränkung zeigt sich erst der Meister (In limitation, the master reveals himself)."
So the relevant question for this post about Steve Reich's music is, does it sound the same from piece to piece? Does it matter? And if so, is that a function of the refinement over the years of his sound, a variation of the same theme so to speak, or is it just that it is easier to write how and what you already know and harder to find some other way to say what you need to say? Or should you? I think about authors and whether this question is the same for them? Does Jhumpa Lahiri get accused of writing the same story over and over again when her subjects are mostly Indian/Bangladeshi or immigrants from there? Does Toni Morrison, because she writes about African-Americans? When you read a Steve King novel, you know you are reading a Steve King novel, should he write like Philip Roth? Maybe this isn't a true equivalent, but I do wonder if this problem, really is a problem at all. What any composer would want, I think, is to have a readily identifiable sound or style, which would mark it as theirs. While there might be some similarities in language and technique, can't one tell the stylistic differences between Debussy and Ravel, Brahms and Dvorak, Coltrane and Sonny Rollins, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, Beyonce and Mariah Carey? So what is that thing that identifies each artist as distinct? Did they get criticized for writing or performing the same piece or same style over and over? Ultimately though, each artist has to come to grips with the larger personal question of how to balance learning to repeat one's style and language with an exploration of new approaches and techniques, in order to express that which needs to be expressed with one's art or music. And in this regard and in finding the answers for himself, I think there is nothing wrong with being Steve Reich.
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 10:00 PM
To all things that create a sense of wonder and beauty that inspires and enlightens.