I don’t know the great Steve Reich at all, but he and J are old colleagues—they did a long joint interview for Tower Records’ in-store magazine, back when there was a.) a magazine and b.) Tower Records—so when J tapped him on the shoulder at Le Poisson Rouge Sunday night (we were hearing You Are Variations and Music for Eighteen Musicians,) Steve hugged him and asked, “What are you doing here: slumming?”
Mr. R. was worried about the volume, and the room—”I think it’s going to be rock and roll, acoustically”—but he needn’t have: you didn’t get much textual clarity from the vocal ensemble in You Are, but the piece isn’t really about text, and otherwise the dynamics were fine. Brad Lubman, the vivid conductor, evoked—mimed, really—the phrases that bloom from and fade back into the pulses, which is the entire task in this music; and the players thrived. Only the synthesizers sounded flat beside the vibraphones with which they’re meant to blend: if only there had been room for ringing acoustic pianos!
Returning to this music in this space reminds you how much it shares with jazz. M18M, strangely, reminded me of Bernstein’s Prelude, Fugue and Riffs, with which it shares almost nothing. But both pieces permit an ensemble to give the illusion of improvisation while actually improvising very little. Listening to M18M is like listening to a jazz trio, when, having doled out the tune, it settles in to the juicier task of embellishing it: which is itself a minimalist project, insofar as the charts remain stable, and only the riffs transform.
But where jazz is often theatrical, here Reich’s minimalism is meditative. The pulse doesn’t quit. Short motivic fragments bubble up, sink down. Timbres gleam. Chords change. Singers coo. Everything’s pleasant—not too loud, not too soft, not too dissonant—the mind is not so much engaged as massaged, for an hour. M18M dates from 1974. During those decades when “eat your spinach” could fairly summarize the way so much new music was composed, performed, and presented, imagine how refreshing this approach must have sounded, in 1974!