The Crazy Calm: Steve Reich’s Orchestral Personality

As a classically trained musician in the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic eras, I have never had much exposure to the vast expanse of modern orchestral music that is commonly pigeonholed into the “Contemporary” period.

However, my relative unfamiliarity with the style proved to be quite interesting, and I found myself on an atonal journey during Steve Reich’s performance to find patterns and meaning to what seemed like an erratic and inharmonious concert. I won’t lie; the first three pieces before intermission, Clapping music especially, seemed tedious, and nearly lulled me asleep. Shamefully, I can’t remember much from those works as I was directing my attention to fighting sleep, but I do recall that the clapping invoked visions of a predator-prey chase on a flat, dry plain. The clapping seemed to parallel the impact of the animals’ paws and hooves on the dusty ground, until, eventually, the predator triumphed.

After digging around on the web, I found that the two rhythms produced by the two performers during Clapping music are actually the same rhythm; one person simply shifts a single beat every few bars until both performers are in unison twelve cycles later. Whether or not this was subconsciously apparent to me, thus producing the predator-prey “chase,” I cannot determine, but it is interesting to consider.

After Clapping music, I was much more attentive, and I initially attempted to identify any sort of chord progression, since most of the pieces seemed to consist of simple triads with an added fourth and power octaves.

I found no pattern.

The key changes were not only fast, but also nearly unpredictable. It was at this point somewhere in the first song after the intermission when I realized that the music of this genre can’t really be analyzed in the same way as that of more traditional instrumental genres.

I tried to allow the metaphorical aperture of my ears to open and receive a more comprehensive taste of the music, and eventually I came to distinguish three aspects to the music.

The first was the voices of the non-percussive instruments, which, for the most part, held sustained, discordant notes. The individual musicians often played these notes unsynchronized with other players and with harsh accents to make clear their arrival. By itself, this section comes off as not only atonal, but also dissonant and brusque. It’s almost like a shapeless mass of sounds, only given shape, structure, and purpose by the second aspect, the aforementioned rhythmic and inharmonious chords from the pianos and vibraphones. It’s also possible to think of the sustained notes as the cohesive factor, binding together the erratic and percussive chords.

I believe it was this paradoxical clash of highly entropic yet somehow organized sounds, melodies, and rhythms that characterizes the appeal of this genre of music. It brought to mind the amorphous blobs of color that swim around your field of vision when you close your eyes, with small, firework-like explosions that catch your attention moments before sleep grasps you. This phase tends to be very calm, and that this outwardly percussive and tonally harsh music can induce this feeling again adds to its paradoxical nature.

The percussive additions also highlighted and contextualized some of the atonal notes held by the wind and string ensemble, though no clear melody really stood out.

The third aspect became apparent when the process of adding voices, from piano to vibraphones to wind and string ensemble, was finished, and the entire orchestra was playing. The coordination of it all was extremely impressive and revealed the musicality and talent of the musicians. The way each player knew when to come in, keeping on beat with the percussion section while disjointed with other players was truly phenomenal. This observation helped me develop a sort of paradoxical summary of the music, which is that it is at the same time repetitive and disjoint.

Furthermore, there was a certain beauty in the arrangement of the final piece, the double sextet. The symmetry of the physical ensemble arrangement clashed beautifully with the differing voices and parts of each half, giving somehow the impression of two ideas unified under a larger theme. Yet this musical abrasion is again counterbalanced by the repetitiveness that gives the piece a certain hypnotizing quality, almost falling into a strange sort of serenity among the chaos.

In retrospect, the many analytical details that can be extrapolated from Reich’s complex and thought-provoking performance is, in my opinion, what makes his work truly beautiful. It is unlike traditional Classical and Romantic style pieces, in which the allure lies primarily on the surface in the melodies and harmonies. Reich’s pieces are processes that are listener-focused and extremely involved in terms of the energy the audience must dedicate to understand the meaning of his deceptively disordered discord. However, once this is achieved, it is gratifying in a way few other musical pieces can replicate.