Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Steve Reich

  • Music for 18 Musicians [ECM, 1978] A-
  • Octet/Music for a Large Ensemble/Violin Phase [ECM, 1980] B+
  • Music for 18 Musicians [Nonesuch, 1998] B+
  • Radio Rewrite [Nonesuch, 2014] A-

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Music for 18 Musicians [ECM, 1978]
In which pulsing modules of high-register acoustic sound--the ensemble comprises violin, cello, clarinet, piano, marimbas, xylophone, metallophone, and women's voices--evolve harmonically toward themselves. Very mathematical, yet also very, well, organic--the duration of particular note-pulses is determined by the natural breath rhythms of the musicians--this sounds great in the evening near the sea. I find it uplifting at best, calming at normal, and Muzaky at worst, but as a rock and roller I often get off on repetitions that drive other people crazy. Usually, I should add, these people tend to be nervous anyway. A-

Octet/Music for a Large Ensemble/Violin Phase [ECM, 1980]
I get shy when I write about putatively avant-garde composers like Reich--who am I to judge their compositional acuity? Somebody who knows great kitsch when he hears it, that's who. Music for 18 Musicians is damn near transcendent kitsch--what seems suspiciously lightweight at first reveals itself over countless hearings as durably ethereal. In contrast, these pieces sound dinky over the long haul--listenably dinky, but dinky. My favorite is "Violin Phase," written for a solitary instrument back in 1967, before Reich got unpretentious. B+

Music for 18 Musicians [Nonesuch, 1998]
Grown even more universal (and likable) in posttechno retrospect, Reich's mathematically ebbing-and-surging facsimile of eternal return is the great classic of minimalist trance, at once prettier and more austere than any Terry Riley or Philip Glass. Eleven minutes longer than in the ECM original "owing to a tempo change governed by the breathing pattern of the clarinetist," this relaxed rerecording will appeal to graduates of the chillout room. But though rock and rollers can go with its flow, it's not a true reinterpretation like Bang on a Can's Eno, and I prefer the intensities I learned to love. Maybe Beethoven can be rehashed forever (and maybe not). With Reich, one is all any nonprofessional needs. B+

Radio Rewrite [Nonesuch, 2014]
Although I admire Reich in general and love Music for 18 Musicians in particular, he does dig him some austere, and austere I can live without. But here Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood performs one of Reich's more virtuosic pieces and Reich returns the favor by assigning minimalist variations on some cunningly concealed Radiohead themes to the alert experimentalists Alarm Will Sound. Right, no one would call it a party. But the rock sonorities are very much a comfort nonetheless. So I expect to get my secondary Reich fix here from now on. And while sticking with Kid A, I'll probably get my secondary Radiohead fix here too. In prog of any vintage or cultural orientation, minimalist rigor rocks. A-