Running with Steve Reich
By Brenda Tremblay ~ Posted Sun, 11/18/2007 - 4:04pm
I started running eleven years ago, and I’ve run essentially the same four-mile route from the start. The first mile follows the Erie Canal, then jogs south. There’s a long, upward slope, a left by the college sign, and then a loop around the campus of the State University of New York at Brockport. The route winds through arches, down brick walkways and through a tunnel of locust trees. At the end, I huff up a staircase to a place where someone’s sprayed “REPOMAN” on the concrete wall of a bridge. At the end of a run, I’m always glad to see Repoman.
For awhile, before it was re-painted, I passed under a railroad bridge smeared with graphic phrases about someone named Marilyn Manson. I felt sorry for Marilyn, imagining her to be a high school student in the throes of some terribly public heartbreak. Was her ex-boyfriend abusive? Mentally disturbed? Why was his graffiti so persistent and vulgar? Then, one day, I saw a photo of Marilyn in Time magazine. Oh.
At first, I ran with only my thoughts for company. Sometimes, bored with those, I would count my breaths. 1-2-3-4-2-2-3-4-3 and so on all the way to 500. Or 1000. I found this strangely hypnotic.
Then in 2006, I got an iPod nano for my birthday.
Like a lot of runners, I found I could go farther and faster with music, especially marshmallow puffs of pop: old Madonna, new Prince, Gwen Stefani, and Justin Timberlake. My friend Nicole (http://artweekly.blogspot.com/) gave me some blood-pumping dance tunes. When I discovered a loop of one of Erik Satie’s Gymnopedies embedded in Janet Jackson’s song, “Someone to call my lover,” I ran with Janet. A year ago, as the days grew colder and darker, I took a daily dose of Stina Nordenstam’s “Winter Killing.”
I sometimes ran with jazz (Cassandra Wilson) or blues (Joe Beard), but I couldn’t run with classical music, because usually there’s no steady beat. If there is one, it undulates, slowing down and then speeding up. This is not good for running. This is why some people think classical music is boring.
But last week, I discovered Steve Reich.
I wanted to write about the Eastman School ensemble Ossia, so I downloaded the 2002 album Tehillim/The Desert Music with pieces by Steve Reich, who’s one of the most successful American minimalist composers. On this Cantaloupe CD, The Desert Music is performed by contemporary classical group Alarm will Sound with Ossia.
Music historian Joe Horowitz calls Reich’s music, “music of change, an intricate sound fabric in steady motion, a kaleidoscope of shimmering, subtly shifting tints and timbres a transmutation of mobile sound shapes.”
Reich’s first conventionally-conceived vocal composition, “Tehillium,” from 1981, opens with passages that whirl up in geometric shapes from bright, clear voices. Echoed phrases give the work a feathery texture, but it’s substantial, grounded in urgent percussion rhythms. The first movement is hypnotic, repetitive, and joyous. Well-timed dissonance allows Reich to keep tension going for long periods. Singing in ancient Hebrew (I’ve refused to look at the text) the vocalists unleash spacious, high-arching phrases over maracas, electric organs, strings, tambourine, and clapping. It shimmers.
The third movement, based on Psalm 18:26-27, is mournful and electric, atmospheric as space music. The first time I heard it, I thought of Cliff Martinez’s soundtrack to the film Solaris, written some twenty years after “Tehillium.” The combination of voices, marimbas and vibraphones give it a spell-binding, intimate quality. I love it, but it's too amorphous for running, and I’ve taken this movement off my playlist.
In the last movement, based on Psalm 150:4-6, Reich juxtaposes acrobatic vocal lines, solid chords, and interlocking phrases from strings, winds, drums and cymbals. Others find his music as infectious as I do. Last month at the Dance Chicago festival, choreographer Eddy Ocampo presented his world premiere "Thwack," which included five dancers from Black Box Dance taking on Steve Reich's clapping rhythms. If you're interested in the blurring of lines between pop, jazz, and classical, read Alex Ross' latest blog, Roberta Flack as minimalist composer (http://www.therestisnoise.com/.)
“Tehillium” is mathematical and heartfelt, brainy and spiritual. It’s crafted by a guy who’s in love with sound. It moves me along.