Minimalist Composer Passionately Explores Moral, Religious Realm


How small a thought it takes to fill a whole life!"

That sentence was written by philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, but it takes on fresh meaning in "Proverb," a radiant new work by composer Steve Reich, who could use it as a motto for his own career.

"Proverb" makes those 11 one-syllable words into the text of a 14-minute piece, exploring their meaning and savoring their sound as they are sung by five voices with vibraphones and organs. Reich has been accomplishing similar feats for three decades, building impressive musical structures out of elements that appear small and modest in themselves.

In the process, he has become a reigning monarch of minimalist music, which he helped discover and establish - along with similarly bold composers like Philip Glass and Terry Riley - during the 1960s. His pieces have been played by many of the world's major orchestras, and his long list of recordings will reach a culmination this spring, when Nonesuch releases a set of 10 CDs recapping his entire career.

Like other minimalists, Reich enjoys cooking up pieces out of deliberately limited ingredients. His early "Four Organs" consists of rhythmic variations on a single chord, for instance, and works like the recent "Nagoya Marimbas" build excitement through repeated note-patterns played at slightly different speeds on multiple instruments. He also uses tape-recorded voices and other "sampled" sounds, shaped into musical forms by sophisticated electronic means.

In addition to his taste for economy, what distinguishes Reich from many modern composers is his passion for bringing moral, philosophical, and religious concerns into his music.

This goes back to early works like "Come Out," crafted from the tape-recorded voice of an African-American youth describing an incident of police brutality. "The Desert Music" took its antiwar text from William Carlos Williams's poetry, and "Different Trains" juxtaposed Reich's memories of childhood rail journeys with thoughts of trains ridden during the Holocaust by Jews like himself. His new "City Life" employs sounds recorded after the World Trade Center bombing in New York - not far from Reich's home - in 1993.

Religion entered his music years ago with "It's Gonna Rain," using the recorded voice of a sidewalk preacher, and continued with the glowing "Tehillim," a 1982 piece based on Hebrew psalms. This interest reached new heights in "The Cave," about the relevance of Abraham's story to contemporary life, made in collaboration with his wife, Beryl Korot, a noted video artist.

They are now collaborating again on "Three Tales," a multimedia piece about the impact of technology on the natural world.

After earning international acclaim for pieces without words, why did Reich start putting so much energy into music with a strong verbal dimension?

"I'd been doing orchestral things and 'new romanticism' stuff," Reich answered during a recent interview in his lower Manhattan home, "and I decided I'd had enough. I decided I had to do the things God intended me to do. I think we have our assignments, and so much time to do them in. I knew if I didn't write for the orchestra, other people would. But if I didn't write 'Different Trains,' nobody would. And if I didn't do 'The Cave,' it wouldn't exist."

Reich often speaks with a smile and peppers his conversation with laughs. Yet he is very earnest when he discusses serious matters, such as his concern for religious values in an age that tends to undervalue them.

"We've been living in an increasingly secular time," he notes. "I think human beings have a religious hunger ... and if that's not fulfilled, then other things come in to take its place. These can be as trivial as shopping, or [they] can be crimes or drugs or sex. That's what the Bible is railing against when it talks about idolatry, which is basically taking something finite and setting it up too high."

This has become a major problem of our time, in Reich's view. "I think there's a kind of hole in our culture," he says, "and I don't think anything can fill it except some of the religions in the history of the world."

Asked about "Three Tales," which will again blend his music with Korot's video images, Reich reports that it will probe the implications of modern technology by focusing on three infamous events - the wreck of the Hindenburg, the nuclear tests on Bikini Atoll, and the Challenger disaster - associated with death and destruction. Despite this downbeat subject matter, he sees it as a constructive work with a positive purpose.

He explains this with another Biblical reference. "At the end of Chapter 1 in Genesis," he says, "God creates man and says he will have dominion over the fish and the fowl and all the beasts of the field. He will subdue the earth.... But there's a second story in Genesis ... that some Bible critics say is a contradiction but is really trying to teach us something different. It says there was no man to till the earth, so God ... creates Adam and Eve ... and they're put into a garden and told to tend it and keep it."

These two accounts reflect today's differing attitudes toward humanity's relationship with nature, Reich continues. In some ways, we want to tame and subdue our planet. In other ways, we want to tend and nurture it.

"We're all both of these things," he concludes. "We want to have the latest, most up-to-date computer - but we may also be like a professor I know, who lives in a house his grandfather owned and chops wood to heat the place. That's the human condition. Only now there's enough technology around to make us wonder if we're going to lose the [simpler] part of ourselves....

"I want to understand technology better myself," he adds. "On one hand, we see the pitfalls of the world around us as it becomes more and more technological. On the other hand, I'm not willing to say I want to throw [technology] out, and everything Western man has done is a sin, and everybody else is wonderful.... I guess [Beryl and I] are doing this piece to try to better understand ourselves!"

* Steve Reich's latest CD release, 'Proverb/Nagoya Marimbas/City Life,' is available on the Nonesuch label, as are most of his major works. The first portion of 'Three Tales,' his current music-and-video collaboration with Beryl Korot, will have its first performances in Bonn this June; the entire work will have its world premiere in 2001.

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