Big Ears 2014: Steve Reich

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You may not be familiar with minimalism, but you hear it every day. Oddly enough, minimalism is not exactly minimal. You might even say that the music classified as minimalist is, in fact, maximal. Basically, minimalist music is made up of tightly structured musical patterns that repeat—and repeat and repeat—interweaving to produce a kind of an aural bath that waxes and wanes as the patterns go in and out of sync.

On paper, it might seem a structuralist nightmare—a stuffy sonic representation of the order of things. But much of what is classified as minimalist is actually refreshingly melodic, straightforward, and enjoyable. It can be beautiful. It can be transporting. And you hear minimalism, or some adaptation of it, all the time—in ringtones, advertisements, ambient soundscapes, film soundtracks, everywhere. Minimalism is so prevalent that it's everywhere, yet few people can even name it.

Composer Steve Reich's signature piece, Music for 18 Musicians, along with Terry Riley's In C, is considered to be the prime example of musical minimalism. The approximately hour-long work, which will be performed at this year's Big Ears festival by Ensemble Signal, is maximal in its own way, employing a broad range of instruments and voices and pulling from a wide spectrum of rhythms and melodies to function as a singular musical entity, a vibrant, harmonious, living, breathing thing.

While 18 Musicians might in fact be his masterpiece, and serves as the exemplar of musical minimalism, the work is by no means representative of the scope of Reich's body of work. To call Reich merely a minimalist composer would be an oversimplification. The Reich canon includes a variety of approaches, ranging from sonic experimentation that reduces the production of sound to its core components as part of a mechanical procedure (Pendulum Music) to purely rhythmic exercises (Clapping Music); from sampling at its most elemental (Come Out) to what Reich himself calls "intense focus on musical process and even one harmony for an hour" (Drumming, 18 Musicians, Violin Phase); from more conventional works with a Western arc of sonic exposition, conflict, and resolution (The Four Sections) to opera, and back again. The bulk of Reich's works, like The Desert Music, Tehillim, You Are, Radio Rewrite, and the triptych of Different Trains, City Life, and WTC 9/11 mix and match the aforementioned techniques.

Still, minimalism is a term that has beleaguered Reich for decades. He is doggedly misclassified as a minimalist composer—a vexation, for sure.

"They only call it that because I wrote it," he says. "But I understand why it's there, and it could be worse. It's a good term for musicologists and journalists but it's poison for a composer, because it puts them in a box."

Since the late 1970s, Reich has deftly eluded the box that he unintentionally built for himself. His compositions still employ the occasional repetitive figure, and much of his work still has that certain structuralist underpinning. But Reich's music is fantastically melodious and accessible. And much of it is even catchy.

There's a mathematical element to all of Reich's music. But isn't all music, from the Ramones to Rachmaninoff, defined by its structure? To be intimidated by Reich's compositional processes is to deny an entire world of emotionally moving and enthralling sound—the sound of the world we live in.

Reich is arguably the world's most important living composer. He has had seismic impact not only in the world of classical music, but also in pop and rock, hip-hop, and electronic music as well. He pioneered sampling in It's Gonna Rain in 1965, and passages from 18 Musicians have become staples of hip-hop and appeared on the British ambient house duo the Orb's crucial The Orb's Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld. Reich's more conventional music set the template for many of today's film scores, such as Thomas Newman's soundtrack for American Beauty. And that default ringtone from the iPhone? That might as well be a direct lift from Reich's Six Marimbas, which is actually his own rethinking of the earlier Six Pianos, anyway.

Once thought to be at the very edge of the avant-garde, Reich's music is surprisingly warm. His early works can be maddeningly repetitive, if you're expecting a verse/chorus/verse structure. Curiously, Reich asserts that his 1970s minimalist compositions were in fact something of a return to conventionality.

"What I was doing at the time was a complete break—a very healthy break," he says. "It was not revolution but restoration. The modern music world of the late '50s into the '70s was dominated by Webern and Schoenberg. Basically, there was no melody that anyone could whistle, there was no harmony to let you know where you were, tonally, at all, and there was no rhythm you could tap your foot to at all. And if you used any of those things, you were considered a fool.

"I did realize that we were taking a step—not as revolution but as restoration—of bringing back popular sources, bringing back some kind of harmonic orientation. So I felt, well, this is returning to solid ground."

So while Reich knew he was onto something important at the time, he had no idea of just how important it would prove to be. He has reimagined and redefined how music sounds, how it is structured, and even what kinds of sounds gets to count as music, spurring contemporary composition forward while simultaneously—and miraculously—maintaining the structural and melodic conventions of the classicists.

"I didn't foresee the kind of success, enthusiasm, and influence that this music would spread worldwide," he says. "Maybe the greatest pleasure that I have as a composer is knowing that my music is being played all over the world—not every day of the week, but on most days."

Steve Reich will perform his own Clapping Music with Brad Lubman at the Tennessee Theatre on Sunday, March 30, at 7:30 p.m. His music will be performed by Jonny Greenwood, Ensemble Signal, So Percussion, and nief-norf Project throughout the weekend. Reich will also appear for what's being billed as "A Conversation With Steve Reich" at the Knoxville Museum of Art on Sunday, March 30, at 2:15 p.m.