Steve Reich: Piano Phase (1967)


Piano Phase


Steve Reich


Early Works (Elektra Nonesuch 79169)

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Steve Reich (mixing, editing),

Judith Sherman (mixing, editing), Edmund Niemann (piano), Nurit Tilles (piano)


Composed by Steve Reich


Recorded: New York, May 1987


Rating: 93/100 (learn more)

In 1967, when Steve Reich composed Piano Phase, he was working primarily with minimalist sound collages created by means of tape loops and splices. Often no music, in the traditional sense, was employed in these works, with the manipulation of taped spoken language creating the building blocks of his throbbing, repetitive soundscapes.

Piano Phase is a meeting point between these early efforts and the composer's later instrumental works. The piece was conceived originally as a juxtaposition of two piano parts, which start by playing repetitive phrases in synch but gradually fall out of phase. Eventually the parts come back into alignment, and the performers are again playing in unison.

Reich found that it was possible for musicians to perform this work live, perhaps lacking the exact precision that tape manipulation allowed, but with a close enough approximation. From the perspective of the musicians, the process was surprisingly similar to jazz performance. True, the music was built on notation rather than improvisation; but the notated music was quite simple, while the challenge of performance was to listen intensely to the other musician and adapt rhythmically to create the intended displacement of the two parts. Few classical compositions put a higher premium on total absorption into playing off the "rest of the band" (so to speak). The work also conveys a modal flavor that invariably reminds us of the turbulent non-classical musical scene, circa 1967. No, my dear jazz cats, it's not A Love Supreme . . . but this music is a reaction to many of the same stimuli that fed into the work of Coltrane, Miles and others during this era.

Reich's greatest music was still ahead of him. Even so, Piano Phase reveals the composer's early preoccupation with the interaction between repetition and gradual changes in texture that would inform his Music for 18 Musicians and other mature works. Even more important, Reich showed that experimentation in composition could be sound-driven rather than ideology-driven. In time, a lot of theoretical baggage would be dragged into the debates over minimalism. But these early works captivate because of a child-like sense of playfulness that was a much needed tonic during a period in which the composition of classical music was gradually becoming the pursuit of academics holding (or seeking) tenured positions in elite institutions.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia

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