‘Clapping Music,’ Talking Music, and a ‘Mallet Quartet’

Steve Reich has been called “our greatest living composer” by a New York Times critic. Was that hyperbole or just ink-stained enthusiasm? Listening to a performance of Reich’s “Mallet Quartet” a few nights ago at the CUNY Graduate Center (followed by his conversation with New York magazine’s music critic Justin Davidson), I understood why Reich was at least in the running. That’s him in the baseball cap.

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  1. MWnyc says

    Oh, Steve Reich is absolutely in the running. Didn’t you know?
    Listen to Tehillim.

    • says

      Yes, I did know. I was being disingenuous. But I like William Osborne’s definition: “Reich is definitely America’s greatest living composer below 42nd Street.” I think Reich himself would get a pleasant laugh out of that.

      • says

        As for my comment that in NYC the rest of the world doesn’t count, they recently hired an Austrian to teach composition at Columbia, Georg Friederich Hass. See:


        He’s the second European “spectralist” they’ve hired. And not long ago the NY Phil made another European spectralist their resident composer. Seems like the crowd below 42nd street is more representative of American culture.

  2. says

    Reich is definitely America’s greatest living composer below 42nd Street. Another New York critic said he is one of the few living composers who has changed the course of history. That, of course, should be taken very seriously, given New York’s habit of understatement in declaring its importance in the world…

    The phasing technique Reich learned during a Fulbright to Ghana has had very little influence upon European new music. Should that be taken as a factor in determining how “great” he is, and how much he has transformed history? Probably not. As New Yorkers will tell you, the rest of the world doesn’t count – not even the rest of their own country.

    Maybe there’s something about New York’s endless and fairly unvarying 24/7 bustle, its one-dimensional focus on an unmitigated capitalism, and its narrow, ethnocentric view of the world that makes droning minimalism so appealing.

    Ah, what sacrilege to describe the great Oz this way, I know. Please send all complaints to gripes@northpole.com

    But seriously, New York hasn’t produced a composer who has significantly influenced the international scene since John Cage, which was about half a century ago. Maybe its time to take a pause in the chest thumping and think a little bit.

    I remember reading about Reich’s work in “Source Magazine” in the early 70s when he was still unknown outside of new music circles and just beginning to write music based on what he learned in Ghana. I remember Hammond organs being involved, and thought the whole thing mildly interesting. A few years later I was living in NYC and read in the paper Reich was giving a concert at Carnegie. I assumed it was in the Recital Hall (now named Weill Recital Hall) where there were a lot of new music concerts, usually attended by the same 30 or so scruffy composer and new music types who frequented the scene. New classical was distinctly unpopular and insular in those Babbitian days.

    When I turned the corner on 57th Street, there were so many people in front of Carnegie smoking marijuana that the smell literally hit me in the face. (New York was different back then.) I figured there must be some sort of rock concert scheduled in the big hall, except that I saw Morton Feldman standing on the steps looking rather unhappy and trying to sell his tickets. I couldn’t figure why he’d be going to a rock concert. The embrace of the music industry wasn’t hip for classical new music composers back then – especially of his generation.

    I went into the Recital Hall and noticed from the program that the performance was actually by an alto from Texas. I got my money back and as I was leaving there was Feldman still trying to dispose of his tickets. From the marquee I saw, to my amazement, that Reich was in the big hall. In my isolation, I hadn’t learned that he had become famous and that huge crowds of people liked to get stoned and listen to his phasing. It was more-or-less then that I learned life was going to be lonely for me.