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At 70, composer Steve Reich '57 gets the recognition he deserves

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Contemporary composer Steve Reich -- pronounced WRY-sh -- is having a good year.

In addition to tributes at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Cornell alumnus, Class of '57, who turned 70 on Oct. 3, has been feted in places as far-flung as Denver and Dublin, Vancouver and Vilnius, Chicago and Cologne and most major cities in between.

"There's just a handful of living composers who can legitimately claim to have altered the direction of musical history, and Steve Reich is one of them," wrote The Guardian (London) recently. "Reich is among the great composers of the century," echoed The New York Times this fall.

Such adulation is a far cry from the initial reception Reich's piece "Four Organs" got at Carnegie Hall in 1973. "People were catcalling or holding their ears and shouting, 'Stop, stop! I'll confess!'" recalled conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, who recognized Reich's genius early and reassured him that his work was provocative and would eventually be heralded.

He was right, of course. Reich's music is lauded for embracing the spoken voice and non-Western rhythms and virtually inventing "sampling" long before the computer or hip-hop. His compositions cross boundaries, attracting such admirers as minimalist composer Philip Glass, pop icon David Bowie, jazz guitarist Pat Metheny and remixing master DJ Spooky.

Reich, who majored in philosophy and minored in music at Cornell, credits the late Professor William Austin's course in music history with helping him define and refine his musical interests. "Austin was the first to point out that medieval and baroque music had a lot in common with Ravel, Stravinsky, Bartók and jazz," says Reich.

Reich first fell in love with jazz when he was 14 and discovered Birdland, the renowned Manhattan jazz club, and the music of Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Reich's hands-down favorite, John Coltrane.

"It was called modal jazz -- many, many notes, few harmonies -- and it had a great effect on me," he says. By the time he got to Cornell in 1953 his drumming had gotten good enough for him to play at Ithaca's black Elks club, the Forest City Lodge. After Cornell, Reich studied with a series of exceptional composers and musicians privately, at the Juilliard School of Music in Manhattan and at Mills College in Oakland, Calif., where he earned an M.A. degree in music in 1963.

While on the West Coast, Reich recorded a fire-and-brimstone sermon about Noah and the flood by a San Francisco Pentecostal street preacher, parts of whose speech he incorporated into "It's Gonna Rain," his first piece to use "phasing."

As Reich tells it, he looped the words on two tape recorders, but one ran faster than the other and out of synchronization. Fascinated by the results, he tried the same technique with instruments. As a New York Times reviewer observed, Reich's "slowly altering the lines [of music] while also moving them out of synchronization [produced] an overlay of phantom patterns" that listeners hear and focus on but that aren't actually being played.

Reich had formed his own ensemble and was living in New York when he showed up at the Robert A. Moog Co. electronic synthesizer studio in Trumansburg, 11 miles from Cornell, in 1970 and introduced himself to David Borden, the now-retired director of Cornell's Digital Music Program. Although Reich was lukewarm about synthesizers then, he and Borden formed a lasting friendship.

Borden and his synthesizer band Mother Mallard were the first to perform Reich's music on campus in the early 1970s -- "Piano Phase" was played on synthesizers and retitled "Synthesizer Phase" at the composer's suggestion. Reich gave his first performance at Cornell in Barnes Hall in the mid-1970s, with members of Mother Mallard assisting, Borden recalls.

In New York City, Reich, whose ensemble by 1977 had grown from three to 18, played for Borden the master tapes of a new piece, "Music for 18 Musicians." It incorporated harmonies, chord changes and orchestral color -- a sharp shift from earlier work with a minimalist label. "It sounded fantastic," Borden says. "After ECM released the recording, Steve's career really took off, and it hasn't stopped since."

While "18 Musicians" came to be considered Reich's masterpiece, The New Yorker recently called a 1988 work, "Different Trains," a reflection on the Holocaust, "his most staggering achievement."

To evoke his own childhood memories of train trips he took starting in the late 1930s between New York City and California to be with each of his divorced parents, Reich interspersed sounds of trains, the voice of a Pullman porter and reminiscences of his former nanny about the journey. Then the mood shifts dramatically as very different sounds from the same era are juxtaposed -- those of the trains that took Jews to Nazi death camps and the voices of Holocaust survivors.

"The music is the match that ignites the material," says Reich. Kronos Quartet recorded the piece, which won him a 1988 Grammy for contemporary composition.

"Different Trains" helped spark Reich's deeper exploration of his Jewish heritage in the 1980s. Among other things, he learned how to read and chant ancient Hebrew -- a natural step following his study of such non-Western musical forms as African drumming and the Balinese gamelan in the 1970s.

Since then, Reich's pieces have become ever more topical. "The Cave," a video opera with his wife, Beryl Korot, a video artist, employs the Biblical story of Abraham's family to call for greater understanding between people of different faiths. Lauded for its fresh approach, it combines theater, video and music interwoven with the voices and prayers of Jews and Muslims throughout the Middle East.

Another video opera with his wife, "Three Tales," takes its inspiration from the 1937 fiery demise of the Hindenburg airship, the 1954 hydrogen bomb test on Bikini atoll and the cloning of Dolly the sheep in 1996, to look at the promise and risk of technology. Included are voices of experts in robotics and artificial intelligence.

On why he keeps raising the bar and continues to compose daily, Reich says: "I'm interested in doing what genuinely interests me, and that keeps on changing." In 1998 he was honored on campus as a distinguished alumnus. He and Borden reprised "Piano Phase" to mark the occasion.

On this year's endless celebrations and the requests that keep coming from younger musicians for new pieces, Reich says: "It feels very good that I've gotten this far and that musicians around the world are interested in my music and want to play it. The music is the most important thing of all. The rest is just footnotes."

Linda Myers is a freelance writer in Ithaca, N.Y.


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Linda Myers