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The Reich Stuff

Yesterday was a day a lot of people have been awaiting for a long time: Steve Reich won the Pulitzer Prize in music. He won it for "Double Sextet," a piece that had its world premiere in Richmond, Virginia, and then came to the Kennedy Center; click on the links for my reviews of both events in The Washington Post.

The reason this is great news is that Reich is a truly wonderful composer: rigorous, honest, and inspiringly dogged in his pursuit of his ideas, which he has followed through his career in such a way that each piece seems to build on and expand from the knowledge developed in the last. Few composers have so many first-rate works: “Drumming,” “Music for 18 Musicians,” “Tehillim,” “Different Trains,” “Three Tales,” and the list goes on.

And the news is doubly great because he had to wait so long for this honor. Reich is 72; he’s been a major force in music for decades. His name is usually linked with Philip Glass’s, and both are lumped together as “Minimalists,” a much-ballyhooed and much-misunderstood term that denotes both composers’ spare, repetitive aesthetic at a certain period of their lives, and that both have rejected as inadequate to describe work that is rich, intricate, and increasingly expressive (and very different). The real problem, though, is that “Minimalism” was long viewed as unserious by the musical establishment, which praised thornier, more intellectual pieces, the heirs of Serialism, and failed to see the poetry or complexity in Reich’s intersecting rhythmic patterns.

Whatever you think of Reich and Glass, the establishment was clearly wrong. Minimalism, for lack of a better term, turns out to have been the seminal movement, the watershed event for so-called classical music in the late 20th century: It’s the single force that has had the greatest effect on the composers of the next generations, from John Adams (who won the Pulitzer in 2003) to David Lang (last year’s Pulitzer winner) to rising composers of today. And for the Pulitzer jury to recognize first Lang, then Reich, does signal that, as Reich said yesterday from his home in Pound Ridge, New York, “the policy is obviously beginning to change there.”

Reich can’t complain, these days, of neglect by the musical establishment: His 70th birthday was celebrated around the world and, in New York, with a joint festival that represented an unprecedented collaboration between Lincoln Center, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and Carnegie Hall. But the Pulitzer represents a kind of accolade that he richly deserves, has waited a long time to get, and that, it’s nice to be able to say, has made him “very happy.” Congratulations to Steve.

(NPR's article on Reich's victory offers an excerpt of "Double Sextet.")

By Anne Midgette  |  April 21, 2009; 6:10 AM ET
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Anne, I'm not really familiar with "minimalism" other than occasionally hearing something on the radio. But I did listen to the excerpt from the "double sextet."

I have to admit that it has a certain seductiveness. It does achieve moments of lightness and beauty. At the same time I found myself resisting the attraction because it seems to me that the music is ultimately about creating superficial effect and little else. I'm sure parts of it will wind up in the background of a movie (a thriller) if they haven't already. JMVHO.


Posted by: shovetheplanet | April 22, 2009 10:43 AM | Report abuse

Steve Reich is an American treasure, who has made "classical" music relevant to the street and vice versa. the music is totally unsentimental but spiritually refreshing. Nonsuch records has a great 5 CD retrospective of his music that has captivated across the generations in my family.

Posted by: petercapitolhill | April 22, 2009 3:27 PM | Report abuse

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