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The Haul: Steve Reich's Octet / Music for a Large Ensemble / Violin Phase

110. Steve Reich – Octet / Music for a Large Ensemble / Violin Phase LP – ECM, 1980 – $10

Steve Reich's Octet / Music for a Large Ensemble / Violin Phase

I first heard Steve Reich during my final year of graduate school, or early 2007 for those of you who don’t keep track of things based on events in my personal life. I can’t remember if there was a specific recommendation that I followed or just a general sense of “I like Philip Glass, Steve Reich seems to be the next logical step” afoot after getting the former’s Glassworks from the Got Books Charity Sale, but Music for 18 Musicians (view linked YouTube of the first ten minutes for a taste) was immediately impressive. It’s telling that I rarely go back to Glassworks now, since I so greatly prefer Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, Six Marimbas, and Octet / Music for a Large Ensemble / Violin Phase. It’s remarkably flexible music: it helped me maintain focus while writing the final few academic papers of my life (I presume); it’s fast-paced enough for driving music (“Violin Phase” excluded); and it’s detailed enough for general sitting and listening. It’s also unlikely to offend anyone, a consideration that I occasionally recognize.

Returning to the specific genre tag, it’s difficult to reconcile the interlocked layers of “Octet” or “Music for a Large Ensemble” with my preexisting notions of minimalism. There’s certainly a reduction at work here; each repeated phrase is relatively short and the larger changes in the music come from the gradual shifts of each layer. Yet unlike something like Arvo Pärt’s Alina, which takes minimal in a more literal, barren meaning, Reich’s compositions never feel spartan. They’re both minimal and buzzing with life. Even on a piece like “Violin Phase,” which contains only three phased violin performances, there are no moments of pause, no breaks from the action.

If I had to choose a favorite pieces from this set, it’s “Octet.” Whereas the individual instruments in “Music for a Large Ensemble” are more locked into the piece’s overall structure, individual performances stand out in “Octet.” Whether it’s the droning cello lines anchoring the piece, the intricate bass clarinet parts that taking focus every few minutes, or the melodic dominance of the flutes, the increased separation between the instruments helps separate “Octet” from both Music for 18 Musicians and “Music for a Large Ensemble.” Does that mean that I’d recommend starting with this LP before Music for 18 Musicians? No, but it’s a nice second choice.

Wait! If you’re not interested in hunting down out-of-print vinyl, Reich’s Phases box set is a great deal. $35 (or less) for five discs, it contains newer recordings of Music for 18 Musicians, Drumming, and “Octet” (presented here as “Eight Lines”), and the original recordings of Desert Music, Tehillim and Different Trains / Electric Counterpoint (the latter with Pat Metheny, although both are excellent), among many other pieces. It’s hard to imagine a better gateway to Reich’s various approaches, even if it’s not comprehensive.