Steve Reich and political minimalism

Steve Reich, one of the creators of minimalist music, brought a political dimension to this genre with his two tape compositions, especially in the 1960s. With his music based on the repetition of simple motifs, interconnected and successive rhythmic patterns, he also influenced innovative musicians who tried to create an alternative to mainstream music, especially Brian Eno’s ambient (ambient) works.

Reich’s music was performed in the galleries, museums, and studio penthouses of the old buildings in Lower Manhattan rather than in the grand concert halls. When the composer, who spent the first half of the 1960s in San Francisco, returned to New York in 1965, composers such as Morton Feldman and Earl Brown were predominant in the city’s cultural scene. Reich began to create music quite different from theirs. His understanding of music had some common points with the art of painters who were looking for an alternative to abstract expressionism, and there were aesthetic parallels between them. This closeness and overlap was effective in his acting in partnership with the painters in question. This is one reason why his music is performed in galleries.

He was born in New York in 1936, the son of a Jewish family with roots in Central Europe. Their ancestors had emigrated to America, fleeing the pogroms. The victimization of Jews in Europe is said to have been instrumental in helping Afro-Americans support the struggle for racial equality and support the civil rights movement.

His father, a lawyer, wanted his son to study law, too. But Reich studied philosophy at Cornell University, writing a thesis on Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language. His interest in language continued in his music education and music career. Despite his father’s insistence, choosing philosophy instead of law was a challenge to his father. His thesis on Wittgenstein should be seen as a ‘letter to the father’.

His father forced him to take piano lessons, saying that as a young member of the bourgeois class, it was almost a necessity for him to know how to play the piano due to his class roots. He took piano lessons, but he did not listen to Beethoven, Schubert, who played in their house. He was a jazz lover in his early teens, fascinated by the music of John Coltrane and Charlie Parker. His intense interest in jazz, a type of black music, different from the one listened to in the bourgeois family environment, was his second rebellion against his father.

After studying philosophy (NYC), he began his music education at Juilliard, taking composition lessons. He went to San Francisco in the early 1960s. He followed the lectures of Luciano Berio, who taught there in 1963-64. Under the influence of Berio, he decided to make experimental studies by using the sounds recorded on tape, especially the human voice as material. From these compositions It will rain(It’s Gonna Rain) in San Francisco and the other, Come Out, after returning to New York.

He spent the first half of the 1960s in San Francisco in the anti-conformist arts scene, amongst West Coast bohemia. He learned a lot in this region, which is considered a hotbed of counter-culture. The Beats were nurturing and guiding the counter-culture at that time. The 50s, when the Beats made their debut, were over, but their traces and influence remained. Opposition to the Vietnam War had also boosted left activism. Poets, artists, musicians were giving aesthetic support to the protests of the anti-war protesters. Poems, pictures, music…

Reich suddenly found himself in the midst of political and cultural activities, which were multifaceted but with definite intersections. This environment offered him the opportunity to sever his last ties with paternal authority.
Reich followed the avant-garde studies in Europe and knew that Berio’s music occupied an important place among them. When she learned that the Italian composer (Oakland) was coming to Mills College, she immediately signed up to watch the lectures. He learned a lot about tape music from him.

Berio in 1958 themeHe used Cathy Berberian’s voice in ‘Omaggio a Joyce’.

The main material of the composition was the human voice. Berberian, UlysseusAfter Berio recorded his reading on the magnetic strip, he intervened in the physics of the sound, speeded up and slowed down the tape, changed the tone and pitch, the ways of speaking and speaking, words and even syllables, creating a new language. On Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language This was what drew Reich to Berio’s music, who wrote a thesis and was interested in his thoughts on language throughout his musical career.

In a way, Berio’s attempt coincided with what Joyca wanted to do. Joyce had given a lot of thought to the structure of language, the origin of words, and the relationship between words. He pushed the limits of language in order to reveal the richness of meaning and expressive power of language.

It will rain It is a turning point in Reich’s music, considered his first successful composition, considered the starting point of his career. Those who study his music begin their research with this tape composition, which enabled him to step into the innovative and experimental music world. In his sermons in San Francisco parks, the Pentecostal priest, Brother Walter, spoke of a disaster that would occur in the near future, which would deeply affect all humanity and cause great destruction to the earth, repeating the phrase “it will rain” and warning of a new Flood.

Reich found strong musical expression in his words. He grasped these words in the context of current political events and tensions. What were these events that created such tension? The escalating crisis, which started with the USSR’s attempt to place a nuclear-tipped missile on Cuban soil in October 1962, brought the two superpowers face to face, and in those days, the possibility of the cold war turning into a hot war was talked about. The escalating crisis caused both sides to threaten nuclear war, creating global fear. The Reich linked the Noah’s Flood and the phrase “it will rain”, of which the priest spoke, with the missile crisis. He recorded this word on magnetic tape and used it as material. He created a minimalist composition with a political dimension. He himself was pleased with the result. He wanted to do another study with the new technique he developed. He found this opportunity when he returned to New York. Get out In his tape composition (Come Out), he used the recorded voice of one of the six black youths known as the Harlem Six, accused of murdering a shopkeeper, by transferring them to magnetic tape as material.

When he returned to New York from San Francisco, where he spent the first half of the 1960s, the Harlem Six’s case had just been settled. black youths were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. However, the trial did not proceed in accordance with the law at all, the lawyers assigned by the court could not defend the young people well, and as a result, unfair punishments were given. Again and this time, campaigns were being carried out for them to be tried fairly, and donations were collected to cover the costs of the trial.
Reich met the writer and civil rights activist Truman Nelson, who ran this campaign. Nelson knew she sympathized and supported the civil rights movement; He made an offer to participate in the donation concert organized as part of the campaign with a composition. When Reich accepted the offer and said that he would contribute with a new composition and what kind of composition he designed, he gave him the audio recordings of Daniel Hamm, one of the young people who were tried as material. Hamm, like five of his other friends accused of murder, was severely beaten at the police station to make him take the blame. He mentioned that his whole body was purple in the audio recordings. Reich used only a small portion of the recordings. He found musicality in his words, as well as in the words of the priest preaching in the parks, but this time tragic musicality. Reich also used a phonetic method. With the voices in the spoken language of the victim, it made the listener feel his pain and made it possible to get under the skin of a person in pain.

It was first performed at the donation concert held at City Hall on the night of April 17, 1966 (NYC). Get out It was an artistic contribution and aesthetic support from avant-garde music to the civil rights movement. It was a critique of police terror against blacks, injustice in the judicial system, and racist tendencies. In fact, these are the problems of today. For this reason, Reich’s experimental work may well serve as aesthetic support for the Black Lives Matter movement, which was created to protest today’s police use of disproportionate force against blacks, sometimes shooting blacks, whom they deem suspicious and criminals, in the middle of the street without bringing them to trial.