Steve Reich (b. 1936)
Program notes for Tippet Rise Art Center
Not to be reprinted without permission
© Benjamin Pesetsky 2019
Steve Reich is one of the two best-known modern American composers associated with the style known rather broadly, and occasionally derisively, as minimalism. While the word might suggest sparseness—as it does in the worlds of visual arts and design—it is more closely associated in music with repetition and periods of stasis, not necessarily to the exclusion of complex textures even verging on the ornate.
Reich was born in New York in 1936 and as a child traveled between New York and California where his divorced parents lived. He studied philosophy at Cornell University and then music at Juilliard and Mills College, where he grew interested in electronic music, especially involving prerecorded tapes. Ghanaian drumming was another major influence, revolutionizing his sense of rhythm and pulse.
While the other best-known American minimalist, Philip Glass, grounded his work in the craft of Renaissance counterpoint as filtered through the French solfège tradition, Reich’s counterpoint in a piece like Vermont Counterpoint is quite different. He builds canons, he says, “between short repeating melodic patterns by substituting notes for rests and then playing melodies that result from their combination.”
The generative principal here is common in Reich’s work: musical elements are put through some process that produces more extended stretches of music, almost mechanically, with little composerly intervention on that level. Like a computer program, you set it up and then it runs—though this analogy holds more strongly for Reich’s early “Phase” pieces of the 1960s than in his “Counterpoint” pieces of the ‘80s. In Vermont Counterpoint, rather than running one process through to the end, he says the “resulting melodies or melodic patterns then become the basis for the following section as the other surrounding parts in the contrapuntal web fade out.” In other words, the major inflections come at the transitions.
But for a live audience, the instrumentation and technological realization of Vermont Counterpoint might be its most striking aspect. A single performer plays flute, piccolo, and alto flute, changing between the three instruments while backed by 10 other flutes on a prerecorded tape. Reich explains:
Starting in 1982, I began my “Counterpoint” series with Vermont Counterpoint, written for Ransom Wilson in response to his original request for a flute concerto—which I was not interested in writing since its conception of soloist with accompaniment was not something I have any attraction for….The overall texture is made up entirely of multiples of the same timbre, which texture highlights the overall contrapuntal web with its many resulting patterns.