Many, many years ago, I found a CD in a markdown bin at a music store in the town that I was going to college in. It was a CD by the Orb and it became one of my real jumping off points to electronic music and one of my favorite CDs of that time. On this CD, the group sampled a bit of Steve Reich’s “Electric Counterpoint” (in “Little Fluffy Clouds”), although I wouldn’t know that for some time afterwards.
Several years later, after I was out of college, I was told about a piece of music called “Different Trains,” which was a collaboration between Kronos Quartet (who I really liked at the time, and were the foundation for said conversation) and Steve Reich. I purchased this CD and it blew my mind. It was really unlike anything I had heard at the time (even from Kronos Quartet, whose “Howl U.S.A.” has similar musical touchpoints, yet I hadn’t heard at that point in time), and it subsequently moved me enough to seek out more work by Steve Reich.
The first purchase that I made was Music For 18 Musicians and it quickly became one of my favorite pieces of music in my entire collection (and still is). It’s one of those amazing, timeless pieces of music that seems to encompass everything I love about music. If you listen to it in certain situations, it can sound driving and almost relentless, yet put into another listening context can sound weightless and ethereal. It’s truly one of those rare pieces of music that I can listen to at any point during any given day, whether I’m happy or sad and know that I’ll enjoy it.
Over the years, I’ve picked up several more CDs by Steve Reich and enjoyed almost everything that I’ve heard by him. In sort of a roundabout way, I learned that he was having his 70th birthday this month (it was on October 3rd), and in doing so it re-ignited my fascination with his music. Even though I already had a good portion of the music contained on it, I went ahead and purchased the recently-released 5CD Phases: A Nonesuch Retrospective compilation.
Not only is the set a better introduction to his music, but it’s also much cheaper than his super expensive (and out of print) 10CD set on the same label. After listening to the set again straight through several times, I can honestly say that I feel it’s essential. It not only includes the aforementioned “Music For 18 Musicians,” but also his stunning “Drumming” (the shorter version), “Different Trains,” one of his earliest tape loop pieces (”Come Out”), his newest composition (”You Are (Variations”) and even “Electric Counterpoint,” which was the song I mentioned waaaay back at the beginning of this review, which was sampled by The Orb. There’s also a ton of other music (including the also amazing "Music For Mallet Instruments, Voices, and Organ"), and each disc runs well over seventy minutes, making for a huge batch of listening. The only pieces I don't find as essential are "Proverb" and "Desert Music" (which is good, but not quite as consistent as some of his other work) but that's mainly a personal preference. In their place, I would have probably included "City Life," which is another of his more unconventional pieces due to its use of samplers. That said, if you're not a person who's already been collecting his work, this set is the perfect place to start. The packaging is elegant (five digipacks in a slipcase with a small included booklet), the price is cheap, and the music is bountiful.
I can honestly say that Steve Reich is one of those composers/musicians who have changed my life for the better, even if it’s just a little bit. For that, I want to wish him a happy birthday and many more productive years doing what he loves.