Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes Steve Reich

Steve Reich in 2005
Stephen (Steve) Michael Reich (born 1936) in 2005

Yesterday’s Music History Monday post, entitled “Musical Riots and Assorted Mayhem”, included a report of what happened when Steve Reich’s Four Organs for four electric organs and maracas (composed in 1970) was performed at Carnegie Hall on January 19, 1973. As we noted yesterday, the boos and catcalls began from almost the beginning of the performance. Of the performance, the New York Times critic Harold Schonberg observed:

“The audience reacted as though red-hot needles were being inserted under their fingernails. There were yells for the music to stop, mixed with applause to hasten the end of the piece.”

According to Michael Tilson Thomas, who was one of the organ players in the performance (as was Steve Reich):

“One woman walked down the aisle and repeatedly banged her head on the front of the stage, wailing ‘Stop, stop, I confess!’”

Tilson-Thomas is an undependable witness; the woman, in fact, merely banged her shoe on the front of the stage.


I’ll be the first to admit that Reich’s early work (like Four Organs) is best enjoyed and understood while the listener is, perhaps, under the influence of some consciousness raising/dulling substance. However, his later works – like Eight Lines and New York Counterpoint – require no such chemical intervention and are outstanding examples of a type of music generically (and unfairly!) referred to as “minimalism”.

The most extreme and lasting musical reaction to post-World War Two modernism is minimalism.

“Minimalism” is an awful term, as it explicitly evokes something of minimal interest. As such, the term does a terrific disservice to the music it has come to represent. For our information: “minimalism” was originally an art criticism term, coined in the early 1960s to address visual art stripped down to its essential, fundamental features. Only later was the term applied to the music of Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Terry Riley and others, and it carried – initially at least – a derogatory edge to it. Thus “minimalism” joins such terms as “Baroque” and “Impressionism”: all words that were originally used to disparage works of art.

(If I had been asked – and I wasn’t; go figure – to suggest a better term for this music, I would have recommended either “pattern and process” or “radical reduction”, the latter, admittedly, sounding more like a fad diet than a musical genre.)

Minimalism is a manifestation of the California musical environment, a place where Western and non-Western cultural elements have mingled in a manner unique in the United States, where composers like Henry Cowell (1897-1965) and Lou Harrison (1917-2003) created bodies of work that drew extensively from non-Western musical traditions. In particular, the persistent repetition that characterizes much of their music creates a hypnotic environment that renders time cyclical rather than narrative: music as “mantra” rather than as a linear story. The Los Angeles-born John Cage (1912-1992) took his Eastern influences to an entirely new level in his attempt to create music that existed outside of the ego of its “creator” and that unfolded unpredictably – moment-by-moment – without reference to a goal-oriented narrative.

What these (and other) California-born or based composers had in common was a sense of musical time that owed more to the music of India and Indonesia than to the goal-oriented, narrative musical tradition of Western concert music. It was the next generation of composers – composers who came into their musical maturity in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s – who added to this decidedly non-Western view of musical time the rhythmic element that created “minimalism”: the rock-steady pulse of jazz and rock ‘n’ roll.…

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