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This classic minimal music album is now available again on vinyl for the first time since the 70s. In recent decades Steve Reich’s music has been presented internationally at major venues, performed by high-profile musicians including the Kronos Quartet, guitarist Pat Metheny, and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. But in 1970, when the music on this LP was recorded, Reich’s audiences gathered in museums and art galleries to hear his work interpreted by the composer himself and a group of friends.
‘I am interested in perceptible processes’ Reich had written in 1968. ‘I want to be able to hear the processes happening throughout the sounding music.’ Four Organs is a radical realisation of this goal. Against the steady rattle of maracas, individual tones within a single chord are gradually lengthened. No changes of pitch or timbre occur, and the drawn out nature of the process provoked outrage at some early performances, when audiences found themselves caught up in a decelerating loop, being dragged towards stasis. Phase Patterns, composed a month later, relies on a phasing technique developed during Reich’s earlier experiments with magnetic tape recordings, which he allowed to drift out of sync. Identical figures initially in unison shift out of phase, generating unexpected patterns.
When these pieces first appeared, on the adventurous French record label Shandar, they were regarded as defining works within a musical movement that had developed during the late 1960s. Reich was seen as a pioneer of minimalism, along with La Monte Young, Terry Riley and Philip Glass, whose music also featured in the Shandar catalogue. With hindsight the term is inadequate and inappropriate when applied to much of Reich’s subsequent oeuvre, which includes rich and varied works such as The Desert Music for voices and orchestra, Tehillim – a setting of Psalms, and his multimedia opera The Cave. But these two works from 1970 are purely minimalist, in a way that the visual artists and sculptors who formed Reich’s early audiences would have recognised.
These pieces may have clear affinity with conceptual art as well as the minimalist aesthetic, but Reich’s allegiance is to making music rather than sound art or acoustic research. Characteristically, after creating Four Organs Reich looked for antecedents in musical history, and found them in the medieval organa of Léonin and Pérotin. His subsequent work has found acceptance and a substantial following within the established institutions of composed music. He has become a major composer.
In the same year that these Four Organs and Phase Patterns were written Reich travelled to Ghana to study with a master drummer. On his return to New York he started work on Drumming, an hour-long distillation of his interest in African and Balinese music and their polyrhythmic processes. It forms an impressive culmination to his use of phasing technique and is widely acknowledged as a minimalist masterpiece. But if it is the radical edge of uncompromising hardcore minimalism that you are after, this reissue of Four Organs and Phase Patterns delivers two key examples.
‘Obviously music should put all within listening range into a state of ecstasy’ Steve Reich in 1969