In the early years of Steve Reich’s career, most of what he composed was played by his own ensemble, Steve Reich and Musicians. It wasn’t simply that he enjoyed writing for a cadre of musicians he knew; it was DIY necessity. Or, as Reich said during a recent phone conversation, “Let’s put it this way: If we didn’t play it, nobody did.’’
The contrast between those days and the present could hardly be more dramatic. Reich’s music is now regularly commissioned and performed by a wide range of ensembles - among them the Bang on a Can All-Stars, who will play three of his works at an MIT concert on Saturday, in which the composer himself will participate. In 2009 Reich won the Pulitzer Prize for music for “Double Sextet.’’ It was a belated recognition of his stature in the classical world, coming long after musicians in jazz, pop, and electronica acknowledged his influence.
Perhaps most telling is the stream of recordings and performances from the past 15 years or so - mostly by young performers - that have, if not eclipsed, at least equaled the composer’s own for vitality and insight. Among them: “Drumming’’ by So Percussion; “Tehillim’’ by Alarm Will Sound; “Music for 18 Musicians’’ by the Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble. This phenomenon particularly pleases Reich.
“I think most composers, in my experience, that is their ultimate desire - that their music will be played,’’ he said from his home outside New York City. And while he admires recordings, “ultimately, if music isn’t played live, eventually it dies. And who makes that decision? If the general community has given the music its seal of approval, and enjoys playing it - that’s the bottom line.’’
The MIT concert is in part an acknowledgment of Reich’s 75th birthday, which actually happened back in October. He is over it, to say the least.
“I think that aspect’s been played to death,’’ he said with amiable bluntness. “Let’s hope I make it to 80. I’m on the five-year plan.’’ Nor is he given to thinking retrospectively about his career. “I’m concerned with the piece that I’ve got to write now. And I’ve always been that way.’’
He is, nevertheless, happy to look back on some defining compositions, beginning with the 1965 electronic piece “It’s Gonna Rain,’’ which created a “phasing’’ effect from two tapes of the same material running at slightly different speeds. “Drumming,’’ from 1971, shifted the phasing onto percussion instruments. Reich can still remember playing the piece in Germany in the early ’70s. It was “in the teeth of Stockhausen, Boulez, Cage indeterminacy. And this piece was about none of the above. And very forcefully so. We got a lot of hackles up! But people thought, we’ve gotta deal with this.’’
In their rhythmic energy and austere sound, the early pieces consciously stood outside the classical tradition. That changed in 1976 with the landmark “Music for 18 Musicians.’’ It took Reich two years to write, and when it was done, “there was a new vista. I’m back in the Western tradition. I’m using harmony, I’m using orchestration, and I’m using all the rhythmic techniques that I’ve used previously.’’
Recognition and acclaim followed steadily. I can remember the prolonged, enthusiastic ovation after a 1989 performance of “Different Trains’’ by the Kronos Quartet at Sanders Theatre. That piece - one of his very greatest - brought its own new panorama. It was rooted in cross-country train trips the New York-born Reich had taken as a child, after his parents separated in the 1930s. A prerecorded tape brings together the sounds of three string quartets with the voices of a Pullman porter, Reich’s governess, Holocaust survivors. Haunting the whole piece is the fact that had Reich, who is Jewish, been in Europe at the time, he would likely have had to ride a very different kind of train.
Or, as he told me, “If I’d been born in Bremen or Brussels, you and I wouldn’t be having this conversation.’’
“Different Trains’’ is similar in both texture and autobiographical subject to one of Reich’s most recent pieces, “WTC 9/11.’’ For a long time Reich lived four blocks from the World Trade Center, and though he wasn’t home during the attacks, members of his family were. Initially he had no idea what the piece would be about; it was only later that “the light bulb went on’’ and he realized that he had never dealt with the attacks in his music.
“WTC 9/11’’ is powerful, though not quite as potent or evocative as “Different Trains.’’ But reception of the Nonesuch recording last year was marred by controversy over the cover, a sepia-tinted depiction of smoke pouring out of the first tower, with a plane poised to strike the second. Many thought the picture in bad taste, and eventually Nonesuch brought out the recording with a more abstract picture full of billowing smoke.
“I really don’t want to engage that’’ was Reich’s first response when the issue of the cover was raised, though he did think that the new cover was an improvement.
“But there was no controversy about the music,’’ he continued. “That’s why I was so ticked off. I wanted people to talk about the music. I didn’t want people to talk about the cover. So we came up with a better cover, and now people talk about the music.’’
Reich will begin the MIT concert by performing “Clapping Music’’ with percussionist David Cossin. It is probably his most elemental phase piece, written for nothing but the hands of the two performers. It may well take on a different aura when heard in the context of the two later pieces on the program - “2x5’’ for a quintet of rock instruments and tape, and “Electric Counterpoint’’ for electric guitar and tape. But, said Reich, “it’s an ideal piece to open a program. It’s like, look, nothing up my sleeves. What you see is what you get.’’