Minimalism: Origins by Edward Strickland (c) 1993 by Edward Strickland ISBN 0-253-35499-4 excerpts 2280w

- pg 182-186 -

In 1961 Reich left Julliard and decided to take up graduate studies at Mills College in Oakland, anxious for a change of scene and what he anticipated as an easy M.A. Mills retains a reputation for attracting renowned visiting professors, and in Reich's time those were Darius Milhaud and Luciano Berio. Nonetheless, Reich found his time at Mills boring and frustrating, valuable largely insofar as it drove the young composer in the opposite direction. The aging and infirm Milhaud, "a kind man, a nice man." was more inclined to reminiscence than analysis and contributed "less than zero" to Reich's musical education in the semester he spent with him. Reich had greater contact with Berio over tow semesters: "Serialism was hot, whether you liked it or not -- and I didn't, but I wanted to learn what the latest thing was, I wanted to learn the technique. I wanted to learn about magic squares, and Berio was a living, breathing, major player." Reich seems not to have found him particularly inspiring as a teacher, not nearly as much so as Overton and Persichetti, who according to Reich strove to educe the student's vision rather than imposing their own. Reich found himself instinctively as unattracted to twelve-tone music though he dutifully continued trying to compose in that vein, as he was attracted to jazz, and especially to John Coltrane, who was simultaneously revolutionizing the perspectives of Young and Riley.

... Reich was living in San Francisco and often went to Jazz Workshop several times a week to catch the mesmerizing saxophonist, who, it can be said without hyperbole, was playing jazz no one had even imagined and doing so with a single-minded concentration and overwhelming energy that was a spiritual as well as musical statement long before he began adopting specifically religious titles for his compositions.

Then back across the bay to the tone-rows, which Reich found increasingly frustrating. On viewing Reich's ostensibly twelve-tone string orchestra piece, Berio went so far as to suggest to his student that if he wanted to write tonal music, he should write tonal music. This may have been his most valuable influence on he young composer, along with providing world-class examples of the kind of music Reich became progressively convinced he did not want to write.

What he wanted to write was still uncertain. In his last semester at Mills, Reich became associated with the San Francisco Mime Troupe, which provided him the vast relief of finally providing a connection between the composition of music and its being heard by an audience. It also provided a connection to working artists he found more interesting if less elegant than their academic counterparts. Reich did the music for light shows and a production of Ubu Roi staged by the Mime Troupe in the deconsecrated church in the Mission that served as their headquarters. The proto-Dada antiplay was designed by William Wiley (who would later design the jacket for Reich's first solo LP) and scored by Reich for the clarinet, strummed violin, and kazoo, the latter played through a Pacific Gas and Electric plastic traffic marker on unofficial lease as a megaphone. It was comprised of a repeated fanfare, the import of which was synopsized by Reich after an impromptu reprise in 1992 as "Goodbye, Luciano! yes, it'll be so tonal you won't be able to bear it."

In early 1965 Reich also used the ending of Stephan Foster's "Massa's in De Cold Cold Ground" and set a fragment of his "Oh Dem Watermelons" in five-part canon as part of the Mime Troupe's "minstrel show," presented as in illustration of the racial stereotypes implicit in both the original music and the original minstrel shows. Reich's "Oh Dem Watermelons" canon accompanied the projection, in the middle of the minstrel show, of a quick-cut film of the same name by Robert Nelson, featuring watermelons flying into Superman's arms, being smashed, being caressed by a naked woman, etc. It was the middle of the 1960s.

Reich's thesis at Mills embodies the profound conflict between his training and instincts at this transitional stage. It was a twelve-tone jazz piece scored for piano (played by Reich), bass, drums, tenor sax, and trumpet, combining what the composer describes as "weird licks" with a fixed beat -- "a really low-level piece I would choose to forget."

After obtaining his M.A. in June 1963, Reich opted to pursue cab-driving rather than college teaching. He had begun primitive experimentation with tape in 1962 but during the next year became more committed, in part through association with the San Francisco Tape Music Center, and began manipulating recordings he made of his fares and other San Franciscans. Working with a mono Wollensak, the first commercially available tape recorder in the United States, then a mono Viking, in late 1963 he completed his first piece, the score for an experimental film, also by Robert Nelson, called The Plastic Haircut. This sound-collage use an old LP narrating "The Greatest Moments in Sports." "I'd record a bit, stop the tape, move the needle, and then start taping again, so there was hardly any splicing," Reich explained to Michael Nyman in 1970. The piece "turned into noise through over-dubbing with loops, rather like a surrealist rondo" [Nyman 1971 230].

In February 1964 he completed his first piece using a musical instrument, Music for Three Pianos or Piano and Tape, a work alter discarded but significant as a foretaste of his work after 1966. The direct influence on the piece was Stockhausen's Refrain, in which Stockhausen had adapted to vibraphones the slowly decaying chordal structures of Morton Feldman. Reich created a cyclic structure of echoed chords, some jazz-derived, which he now describes as "somewhere between Morty Feldman and Bill Evans." The chords played by the first piano are repeated (either exactly or in rolled, broken form, etc.) by the second and third, resulting in a repetition of notes in the same timbre, but without repeating rhythmic patterns or the fixed beat of the thesis piece.

As his commitment to tape grew, Reich acquired a Sony 770 in 1964, then a state-of-the-art stereo machine, and a Uher portable -- both on installment with co-signer Phil Lesh, who had been a fellow student at Mills, was then a postal worker, and would soon be the bassist for the Grateful Dead. Reich ran a mike from the Uher, half the size of an attache case, tucked under his driver's seat, up to the dome-light of his cab. He took the results of his bugging the cab and crafted them into a three-minute quick-cut collage of door-slams and the daily crises of his fares entitled Livelihood.

In fall 1964, Reich began a more important tape piece using voice. Tipped off by a friend, he brought the Uher and a shotgun mike to union Square to record a young black street preacher named Brother Walter quoting Scripture and prophesying apocalypse in quasimusical declamation. After taping him, Reich's problem was what to do with tape that could match the raw material itself. He considered collage and also attempted musical transcription of Brother Walter's implied pitches -- a technique he would not perfect until a quarter-century later in Different Trains.

Some months before leaving Mills, Reich had begun to form an improvisation group. He supported his studies with a graduate assistant-ship, as well as by teaching rock'n'roll progressions in San Francisco's Hunter's Point ghetto ("teaching them their own music. . . kind of a funny position to be in") and theory and composition at a community music school on Kapp Street in the Mission. One of the students, violinist and later philosopher George Rey, joined the group, along with cellist Gwen Watson, keyboardist Tom Constanten (who joined the Grateful Dead), and saxophonist and later composer Jon Gibson, who had played in Reich's thesis and calls him "a major influence on my thinking and also supportive of my work" [In Good Company].

The quintet often played in a percussive style that may have represented an uncomfortable mix of jazz and Stockhausen; it was initially conceived as improvisational, illustrating Reich's attraction to jazz and desire to distance himself from academic composition. After months of weekly sessions of largely subjective and extempore improvisation, Reich felt the group had reached a dead end. He attempted to remedy the situation in November 1963 with Pitch Charts, in graphic notation derived from Berio's Tempi Concertati but providing a semblance of tonality in that it remained within given pitch groups for periods between cues. The series of boxes that served as markers in the score went so far as to specify the notes to by played but not so far as to specify the rhythm or manner of their playing.

The ensemble gave a performance at the San Francisco Mime Troupe one night in early fall 1964, featuring pure improvisation along with Pitch Charts, and pieces by Tom Constanten and Phil Lesh. Reich noticed that one member of the audience, a local celebrity from his association with Ann Halprin, Ken Dewey, and La Monte young, as well as for his own tape and piano work, walked out at intermission.

Reich lived on Wool Street in Bernal Heights, which he describes as then "a wacko blue-collar area with seedy undertones." He had learned from a mutual friend, jazz trumpeter Bill Spencer, that Riley lived on the same street. Next day he paid a visit to his garage studio, introducing himself, Riley recalls, with a bang on the door followed by "Why'd you walk out on my concert?" After this inauspicious introduction, the two sat down to talk and despite very different personalities and personal rhythms reflective of their upbringing in Manhattan and the Sierra foothills, hit it off. They discussed their shared interest in tape and Riley showed him the one-page score of In C. Reich immediately offered the services of his ensemble. Of the other members only Gibson ultimately performed in the premiere; otherwise the improvisation ensemble was on its way out.

Gibson needed no prodding. Twenty-eight years later, still the only musician to have played in ensembles of the four major figures of early Minimalism, he refers to Riley as both "brilliant" and "a great guy." Apart from valuing Riley's friendship in period in which he felt very much at loose ends, Gibson states, "I was at Terry's disposal, deeply impressed by him as a person.... He provided a turning point in my whole way of thinking about music and life." In terms of very practical return he provided Riley lessons on soprano sax -- to which he had been converted in high school not by Coltrane but by Steve Lacy's work on Gil Evans & Ten(?jh) -- lessons Riley would soon put to good use.

The bus-ride epiphany that had progressed to unique figural notation on the page was a step closer through Reich and thence Gibson to being heard outside Riley's head.

Reich completed his piece with Brother Walter in January 1965, two months after the premiere of In C, and it is from this point, the mid-1960s, that his distinctive contribution begins. Just as Riley unhesitatingly credits Young with revolutionizing his whole conception of music, so Reich is equally forthright in acknowledging that the experience of In C radically changed the direction of his music. This is evident as early as the Brother Walter piece, which became known as It's Gonna Rain. The title is take from Brother Walter's citation of God's warning to Noah: "It's gonna rain after a while." The text of the entire first section of the work consists of the first three words of the warning, repeated through tape-looping. As noted Reich had been instinctively drawn to tone-row repetition when working in dodecaphony, but In C clearly provided a model for the more extended repetition of modules. Initially Reich considered dis- and reassembling Brother Walter's dialogue collage-style, as per "The Greatest Moments in Sports," but as the In C rehearsals continued, his strategy changed in the direction of repetition through tape-looping in a more all-encompassing manner than in The Plastic Haircut. The results of his subsequent decision to concentrate on a few phrases repeated hundreds of items warrants in its reductivism the Minimalist tag that Reich and Riley both, understandably, find largely irrelevant or misleading when applied to their later work but accept with less enthusiasm than resigned equanimity when restricted to their early efforts.

- pg 188 -

...It's Gonna Rain had its first public performance exactly twelve weeks after In C at the San Francisco Tape Music Center, paired with Music for Three or More Pianos or Piano and Tape and Livelihood.

Rather amazingly, Reich eliminated the second part of It's Gonna Rain from the premiere on Wednesday, January 27, 1965. he describes this period as one of soul-searching and abiding depression and feared that in the apocalyptic relentlessness of the piece he might be "inflicting my neuroses on the world at large." In any case, the performance at the Tape Music Center -- announced in the Chronicle as " a concert of electronic works by Steve Reich" -- was fairly well-attended and received, with the now-long-since-discarded Livelihood garnering most of the attention, largely for its accessibility. In an of-the-cuff review of "a promising young composer," Dean Wallace described the concert in the San Francisco Chronicle. Wallace found Reich's "stuff... reasonably tame ... and ... notably lacking in that over-rated attribute, originality. But it has two signal qualities that raise it several notches above the mill-run -- a sense of humor and definite feeling of formal balance."

After the minstrel show and a stint working at the post office, the composer went back home to New York in September 1965,...