Generations Ahead: Steve Reich

Composer Steve Reich’s Three Generations series will illustrate the sea change in compositional language ventured by Reich and his peers and carried forward by younger generations

By Thomas May

On January 18, 1973, a scene of mayhem overtook Carnegie Hall. The trigger was Four Organs, a work by Steve Reich that the visiting Boston Symphony, led by assistant conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, included in its program of Liszt, Bartók, and J.C. Bach. Reich’s piece for four Farfisa keyboards and maracas had already been heard in New York three years before—but that was in a very different context, in a concert by the Steve Reich Ensemble at the Guggenheim Museum. Four Organs had also been performed (without contention) at the Boston Symphony’s home base in 1971 and was, the composer notes, “one of my first pieces to be heard by a large concert-going public.”

But this evening went differently. “[T]he audience reacted as though red-hot needles were being inserted under fingernails,” wrote New York Times critic Harold Schonberg of the remarkable scene at Carnegie Hall. Schoenberg’s review depicted a spontaneous battle of wills unfolding between audience contingents pro and con, some delivering “lusty boos” while others “screamed approval.” In contemporary-music lore, the event has come to figure as an exciting showdown reminiscent of the riotous premiere of The Rite of Spring 60 years earlier.

Could anyone in that audience (pro or con) have foreseen the role Steve Reich would come to play in the music of our time? His influence has long since extended well beyond the rarefied sphere of the avant-garde, leaving a profound and lasting mark on the mainstream of contemporary culture. Indeed, Reich’s music is now attracting concertgoers to Carnegie Hall as the venerable institution participates in the worldwide celebration of Reich’s milestone 80th birthday (which took place this past October 3).

For the 2016–17 season, Reich holds the Richard and Barbara Debs Composer’s Chair at Carnegie Hall—a distinction that underscores the significance of his legacy. It entails seven programs of works ranging from Reich classics to new commissions (by Reich as well as his colleagues) and culminates in an upcoming series curated by the composer.

The residency began last fall with a portrait concert that unveiled Reich’s new Carnegie-commissioned score (Pulse); in February the Kronos Quartet presented a program of innovative works for string quartet—among them the composer’s Triple Quartet (for live string quartet and pre-recorded tape). This March, a concert by the American Composers Orchestra juxtaposes Reich’s classic Tehillim with world premieres by other composers.

Three Generations is the title Reich has given to his curated series of four concerts (starting March 30 and continuing through April). Beginning with his own cohort, the generations in question are each roughly separated by 20 years. Reich explains that the idea behind it grew from a remark once made by his younger colleague and friend David Lang: “I envy your generation.”

As he pondered exactly what Lang envied about the generation now in or approaching their 80s, Reich came to realize it had to do with a sense of necessity driving their creative effort. “Sometimes you are born in a time in which you feel, as an emotional, gut reaction, that there has to be change,” Reich told me in a recent telephone interview from his home in Pound Ridge in upstate New York.


According to Reich’s view of modern music history, the generation of postwar avant-garde European composers—epitomized by Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen—was really an outgrowth of German Romanticism, which had reached what he terms (after John Adams) its “mannerist phase.” Reich deems this “a great historical movement of great music—but a movement that had become very complex, as happened at the end of the Renaissance going into the Baroque. I was brought up in a generation of composers who didn’t feel comfortable with the mannerist phase. If you get to a period where something is too complex, you can be sure somebody’s going to come along and say: ‘This place is a mess, give me a broom!’”

That task of clearing away excess complexity fell to the group of composers that the first two of the Three Generations concerts will spotlight: Reich’s own generation, among whom he mentions Terry Riley, Philip Glass, Arvo Pärt, “and, later, John Adams.” He regards Adams, though ten years younger, as part of the generation that carried out this initial wave of musical renewal. For the first Three Generations concert, Reich has programmed Shaker Loops, Adams’ early breakthrough work for strings (septet or orchestra). Its first performance in New York in the 1970s was as part of a concert series presented by the Steve Reich Ensemble at the Guggenheim Museum—an event that marked the beginning of their ongoing friendship.

Reich will also give a nod to other kinds of interactions among this generation with a performance of the original version of Terry Riley’s seminal In C. Reich recalls that when he collaborated with Riley as he was preparing the piece, “I put in the pulse. But the original version is much more contemplative, a very different kettle of fish.”

Another classic represented in the series is 1988’s Different Trains, Reich’s first piece for the Kronos Quartet, and what the composer calls “a line-in-the-sand piece” that draws on his previous experiments with speech recordings to generate the musical material, here translated into the language of string instruments.” Pulse, Reich’s Carnegie commission premiered by ICE, is a recent piece that also finds him incorporating strings into the scoring in a way he describes as “very traditional, very euphonious, which I think string players will enjoy.”

Reich has programmed Pärt among the Americans to show that others were doing the same thing independently, in different cultural contexts. “When I first met Arvo Pärt, he told me he had heard my music, but I don’t think that is what set him on his path; what did was the fact that he was dissatisfied with the music around him. We all felt this necessity of simplification: harmonically, melodically, and a back-to-basics approach to rhythm.”

But this sweeping away involved a fresh appreciation of aspects of the musical past that had been overlooked. “Here you had a generation that felt dissatisfied with what preceded us. We related to other periods in Western music.” In his own case, this extended to such areas as “11th- and 12th-century organum in Paris, where you find the beginning of two-, three-, four-part music in the West. I wrote Proverb in honor of Pérotin.”


Despite the riotous Carnegie Hall incident in 1973, Reich emphasizes that his generation’s achievement was an act of “restoration, not revolution: restoration of melody, harmony, and counterpoint in a brand-new way, but with reference to the history of those terms as we understand them.”

“According to Reich’s view of modern music history, the generation of postwar avant-garde European composers was really an outgrowth of German Romanticism.”

Along with such musical restoration, Reich experienced a renewal of interest in his Jewish heritage, having been raised “with little knowledge or practice of it.” While studying music in Ghana, he became intrigued by the power of oral tradition in passing down musical knowledge from one generation to the next. “I started thinking, don’t I have anything like that?”

This led Reich in the 1970s to become reconnected to Jewish tradition and practice. In 1981 he began to incorporate that dimension into his work with Tehillim, his setting of several Psalms, which he says “staked out brand-new ground” in his musical language as well. A parallel might be seen in Pärt’s application of his musical ideas to his Eastern Orthodox Christian faith in numerous works.

The real iconoclasm practiced by Reich and his like-minded peers was not the rejection of Western tradition but the dominant ideology of the avant-garde when they came of age. “I could understand the intelligence of magic squares and 12-tone rows and the realization of dynamics, and I had enormous respect for Boulez and Stockhausen, but emotionally I did not want to spend the rest of my life doing that.” Instead, Reich felt instinctively drawn to certain moments in the Western tradition—J.S. Bach and Stravinsky in particular—as well as to other traditions that moved him on a similarly profound level: American jazz, the drumming he studied in his travels to Ghana, Balinese gamelan.

Reich muses that the result might have been little more than “a funny little blip” in music history, after which “we’d go back to the continuation of German Romanticism. But that’s not what happened.”


Three Generations also explores the two generations that have followed along the trail blazed by their elders by blazing new ones of their own. Reich says: “I think I’ve got very good representatives, but each one is the tip of the iceberg.”

To represent the second generation, Reich picked the Bang on a Can founders (David Lang, Julia Wolfe, and Michael Gordon)—who also happen to be among his best friends—because “they are a set of composers and entrepreneurs who became an international force.” The Bang on a Can generation did not replicate what Reich’s generation had done, “but they found it interesting and wanted to take off from that point, which is exactly what they did. It’s quite gratifying to see that your music can be not only enjoyed by the general public but actually of use to other composers, to your own tradesmen.”

Mere imitation would have signaled a withering branch. For Reich, the fact that very different kinds of music have emerged from the Bang on a Can contingent reaffirms the idea that “this will be some kind of historical development. After them you have another generation who are 20 years younger. I picked two excellent examples—Nico Muhly and Bryce Dessner—who are very accomplished as performers and composers.” The final concert of the series will present the world premieres of new works by Muhly and Dessner commissioned by Carnegie Hall.

“We live in a web of traditions,” Reich observes. “With this series of concerts, I want to point out that there’s a restoration and now a new branch on the tree of Western music, which began with my generation. It’s wonderful to see that what we were doing in my generation is something that needed doing and will go on for awhile. And eventually it will transmogrify into something else, because that’s the way of the world.” 

This story is the first in a series of articles celebrating the work of contemporary American composers. Look for more installments of the American Masters series throughout 2017.