Running with Steve Reich

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 ( 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.”

Yeah, it’s all that, and it’s also great for running.

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 (

“Tehillium” is mathematical and heartfelt, brainy and spiritual. It’s crafted by a guy who’s in love with sound. It moves me along.




I've been reading Alex Ross' blog and was happy to see Roberta Flack mentioned. Alex excerpts a Jason King essay that refers to Roberta's "predilection for spaciousness". If you want a good example, you should listen to "Quiet Fire". It features what I consider to be the definitive reading of "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and a hypnotic and heartbreaking version of Van McCoy's "Sweet Bitter Love", neither one much good for running, I'm afraid.

My morning ride

When I exercise I tend to listen to albums, favorites that I know by heart. This is because my morning ride lacks the interesting scenary - it's in my basement on the stationary bike. That's why I like music that I know so well - the songs become the landmarks along the way. Lately I have been stuck on Foo Fighters, but I go with classic rock (e.g. AC/DC) and some 80's modern rock standards (New Order, EMF). I don't necessarily need a fast tempo, as long is consistent throughout a song I can assign some number of turns to it and stay moving. I haven't thought of classical music to ride to. Maybe The Four Seasons (mine is Gil Shaham with Orpheus) would fit my aformentioned familiarity requirement....

familiarity requirement

I didn't anticipate running to Steve Reich. It was only after I got the album that it occured to me it would be great excerise music. I think it's the percussion that works for me, so Vivaldi might not. I'd like to know what you think of the Reich if you have the inclination to explore. You seem to have excellent taste in music. I'm working on the perfect work-out playlist, so please send the names of your top recommendations. I'm finding myself a little bored with the same stuff I've been listening to. I have no aforementioned familiarity requirement!

message from Steve Reich (via Howard Stokar)

Tell Brenda I read her blog and am glad she runs to my music. That's a good use for it. She also points out how classical music; doesn't keep a steady beat and is no good for running. Well, tell her that's true for Brahms, Mahler and many other romantic composers of the 19th century, but she should give JS Bach a shot. Something as easy to find as the Brandenburg Concetos. He - if correctly played - certainly keeps a steady beat and would seem like a natural joy to run to.

All best,