Steve Reich – Writings about Music

One of the highlights of the winter was hearing a number of Steve Reich pieces performed at the annual New Music Festival here in Winnipeg. Reich was the guest composer this year and he won the crowd over by his enthusiastic response to the performances of his work and by his graciousness to the performers themselves.

I’ve been listening to Reich’s music for some time now, having first heard his Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices, and Organ sometime around 1990. I suppose I read about his work in Melody Maker or the NME where his name was often invoked to explain this or that tendency in the electronic music of that time, whether it was the matter of a direct sample (the Orb, if I remember correctly, sampled Reich’s work) or just as a vague high-cultural influence.

I recently read Garry Neill Kennedy’s The Last Art College: The Nova Scotia College of Art and Design 1968-78, which features an almost week-by-week account of exhibitions and events held at the college during the time that it emerged and established itself as one of the key art colleges in the world. I scanned the timeline to see if Reich had ever come to town, but, despite the fact that the college had connections to many in Reich’s NYC milieu, including Philip Glass, it doesn’t seem as if he did. Nevertheless, the Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design did publish (in coordination with NYU Press) a short book by Reich in 1974, Writings about Music, as part of “The Nova Scotia Series: Source Materials of the Contemporary Arts.”

I didn’t find the book in one of the many used bookstores in Halifax, but stumbled upon it in the remainder bin at the McGill University bookstore in MontrĂ©al sometime in the mid-90s. I remember thinking how odd that it was there at all, let alone for the criminally low price of $2.99. That’s my copy above, complete with the residue of a missing price sticker on the cover. Had it been sitting there for a couple of decades since its publication in 1974? Or had it been rediscovered in some warehouse and sent out only in some desperation to sell it instead of pulping it? It’s never been reprinted, so it’s a bit of a rare bird.

The best thing about the book are the hand-written explanations by Reich himself of some of his earliest pieces. This one for “Slow Motion Sound” is a gem:

But there’s also Reich’s early manifesto “Music as a Gradual Process” and a number of photos of early performances, including the one of “Four Organs” that graces the cover and this one of Reich performing “Pulse Music”:

Although Reich’s music has changed over the years, there’s still a way in which he remains committed to the principles in “Music as a Gradual Process.” Written in a bold, declamatory style common to the manifesto, this piece remains striking and powerful. My favorite line in it, and one that surely informs, consciously or unconsciously, so much electronic music produced since Reich’s experiments is this one:

Though I may have the pleasure of discovering musical processes and composing the musical material to run through them, once the process is set up and loaded it runs by itself.

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One Response to Steve Reich – Writings about Music

  1. garry neill kennedy says:

    Steve Reich did visit the college. In fact he taught a summer school course while he was working on his book (the one you bought for such a ridiculously low price), “Writings about Music” with the Director of the NSCAD Press, Kasper Koenig. He came to Halifax directly from Vancouver where he was doing a concert. I picked him up at the airport. I have some correspondence from him.
    ps How great that S.R. was in Winnipeg.

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