HAVING FINALLY GOTTEN my hands on the monumental 10-CD Steve Reich box, Works 1965-1995 (Nonesuch), I wasn't surprised to find the set's recording of Desert Music was made possible, in part, by a grant from the Stanley H. Kaplan Educational Centers. The occasional and respectful didacticism of Reich's music aside, his early work helped me survive academia in very practical ways. Countless all-night cram sessions and term-paper freestyles were conducted to Reich's Drumming, Music for 18 Musicians, and Music for a Large Ensemble. They were at the time, and probably remain, among the ultimate desk-work soundtracks: Soothing in their pulse-driven, intricately knit repetitions (don't freak out: focus); invigorating in their relentless, hive-like polyrhythms (you haven't slept in days, but this paper is due in two hours). No doubt Reich's work is partly to blame for my career choice.
This is music you wish could soundtrack the world. That old bugaboo "ambient"--usually a tag for music that functions unobtrusively in the background, but rarely rewards close listening--doesn't do Reich justice. His early pieces crave attention: It's music you can fuck to, get loaded to, clean the house to, and even dance to, if you're light on your feet--and it still sounds great when you're done.
It's Reich's very un-ambient obsession with percussion and rhythm that (for this listener) elevates his best work above the Zen exercises of minimalist peers LaMonte Young and Terry Riley, or Philip Glass's more recent Classics For Dummies (Large Type Edition). Like the Velvet Underground, whose drone-rock was shaped by John Cale's early tenure with Young, Reich can bring the noise--quiet and still--and, in a manner of speaking, kick out the jams.
Partly it's a New York City thing--that place where Reich made his home and where the deepest silence always contains an undercurrent of aural sputum. But it's also about the sort of time suspension native to Indonesian gamelan and West African drumming traditions, musics Reich has studied closely. Listen to Drumming (1971) for a taste of discovery. This is the piece where Reich first hits upon the sound palette that would forever define his work. Tuned drums and, more crucially, marimbas and glockenspiels hammer out identical, rapid-fire rhythms, while voices, a piccolo, and Reich's own whistling echo the sounds and patterns precisely, gradually moving them in and out of phase with one another. The effect is like a gentle monsoon, with beats falling down like rain, while also billowing in a counter-motion to the internal rhythms.
The concept came from Reich's early tape experiments, where he would simultaneously run two reel-to-reels of the same looped material and allow the sources to gradually slip out of phase. These days, of course, this sort of sound 'n' magic is the vernacular for your average house and/or techno DJ, who knows how to deploy two copies of the same record to freak a room full of ravers. One could imagine the groove of the second movement of Reich's "It's Gonna Rain" (1965), which loops a wild-ass Pentecostal preacher into analog oblivion, working pretty well in a club if the piece didn't also sound so completely insane.
In fact, both "It's Gonna Rain" and "Come Out" (1966) use snippets of African American demotic, perhaps to represent a sideways look at the roots of rock & roll. So too does Clapping Music (1972), which is just what its title says, and whose rhythms scream "Iko Iko" (not to mention "I Want Candy," "Bo Diddley," and a half dozen jump-blues titles I'm too lazy to look up right now) louder than anything in any piece of "serious composition" I've ever heard. Meanwhile, check my beloved Music For Mallet Instruments, Voices, and Organ (1973) and tell me that you don't hear the essence of Stereolab sans those pesky pop-song structures.
All this is not to champion Reich's crossover potential (though Aphex Twin is currently cannibalizing Drumming and other works for a multi-artist Reich remix LP) or to validate his standing as the most important American composer of the last half century (true, I believe, but really, where's the competition?). It's only a means to articulate why his music still gives me so much pleasure. It goes back to the old notion that, in music, repetition represents the infinite. And that's why I suspect Reich's best work will continue to refract the history of pop and provide the score for marathon study sessions and sex trysts well into the next half century.