JANUARY 18, 1973: LUSTY BOOS, BANGING SHOES AND CRIES OF 'I CONFESS!' - A MINIMALIST EVENT CAUSES MAXIMUM MAYHEM
BY KEN SMITH
Truth be told, it wasn't the premiere. It wasn't even the first time the Boston Symphony Orchestra had programmed the work. But to all intents and purposes, Steve Reich's Four Organs, as well as the composer's brief but fruitful relationship with the conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, was born with a vengeance at New York's Carnegie Hall on January 18, 1973.
'A Concert Fuss: Piece by Reich Draws a Vocal Reaction', the headline trumpeted over New York Times critic Harold C Schonberg's review, giving the fit-to-print account of what many other first-hand observers later described as a near-riot. Many of the normally demure New York ticket-holders – some of whom had subscribed to the BSO since the days of Koussevitzky – were certainly not going to pay to hear the new 'minimalism: they began shouting threats throughout the performance. As the young Tilson Thomas, later related to critic and musicologist K Robert Schwarz, one elderly lady started banging her shoe on the stage to get them to stop. Another audience member ran down the aisle, screaming 'All right, I confess'. At the end of the concert there were 'lusty boos,' Schonberg wrote, '[and] also a contingent that screamed approval. At least there was some excitement in the concert hall, which is more than can be said when most avant-garde music is being played.'
From today's standpoint, the outrage of the day is difficult to understand. That 'new' musical style had already been brewing for a decade in New York lofts and San Francisco galleries, and a 1968 recording for Columbia of Terry Riley's In C had already shown its commercial possibilities. That same year, the term 'minimalism' had been borrowed from the visual arts, first by British composer/critic Michael Nyman to describe the music of Cornelius Cardew, and shortly afterwards adapted by Village Voice critic Tom Johnson to address that circle of American composers working with repetitive musical modules (both still lay claim to the term).
So to the minimalist set, circa 1973, Four Organs was already ancient history, the piece having been premiered three years earlier by Reich's own ensemble at New York's Guggenheim Museum. The composer's next piece, Phase Patterns (1971) had even turned up on one of Pierre Boulez's New York Philharmonic new-music programmes at the city's Public Theater, though the event remained a relatively segregated Downtown phenomenon. By the time Four Organs came to Carnegie Hall, the BSO had already performed the piece at home with little reaction, and Reich himself had already pursued grander musical soundscapes with Drumming (1971), his next breakthrough piece.
None of this news seemed to have filtered through to the musical mainstream by 1973, however. Only a few months after the Reich concert at Carnegie Hall, the much younger Times critic John Rockwell would praise a Soho loft performance of Philip Glass's Music in Changing Parts as 'a great night to be in New York'. Glass would soon have his own debut at a conventional uptown classical music venue, with Music in 12 Parts at New York's Town Hall. But for now, Reich came to Carnegie Hall with little fanfare - nor for that matter, with much melody, harmony or conventional notions of musical structure.
How the music got on the Carnegie stage in the first place was due to the programming quirks of Tilson Thomas, then the fast-rising BSO associate conductor who had just started an additional post as music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic. Not since Bernstein had a young conductor so fired the public imagination or attracted such critical backlash. Tilson Thomas had worked at the feet of Boulez, gaining impeccable avant-garde credentials. At the same time, he could wax rhapsodic about Jimi Hendrix and James Brown, the latter of whom, he told Times critic Donal Henahan, was 'the closest thing to genuine Gesamtkunstwerk in the 20th century'.
It was in the BSO's new 'Spectrum' series, inaugurated in 1971, that the young maestro found the forum to enact his more radical notions of programming. After hearing an early tape piece by Reich at a party, Tilson Thomas in a huge leap of faith asked the composer if he had any pieces for orchestra. Reich, who shared the conductor's passions for both Stravinsky and James Brown, had barely written for live instruments, much less a large ensemble; instead, he offered a piece for four Hammond organs and maracas. Tilson Thomas cheekily put it in his first 'Spectrum' programme in 1971 alongside Mozart, Bartók and Liszt.
Boston audiences loved it – or at least went along for the ride agreeably. Two years later at Carnegie Hall, though, it was a different matter. Schonberg, a lifelong critic of pretentious informality as well as the new minimal style, found the concert an affront on both counts. Immediately, he cited the performers in open-necked shirts and conversational presentation as 'Leonard Bernstein at his worst'. As far as Reich's music was concerned, Schonberg added: 'There is really nothing to "understand" in this music. There is really nothing much to like, nothing much to dislike.' And in a way, he had a point. For 21 minutes, while a maraca player kept a steady tempo, four keyboard players (including the composer and the conductor) gradually augmented a single dominant 11th chord from short pulsations to a throbbing, bass-heavy mass of sound before the entire musical wall breaks down. Even by the austere standards of Reich's early process music, Four Organs is, as Schwarz once maintained, 'the ultimate minimal work'.
The audience, however, obviously had their own ideas of what to like and dislike, Critics were heavily divided – Alan Rich of New York magazine found it a 'marvellous, original invention about musical time and rate of change', while Schonberg predictably compared it to 'red-hot needles inserted under fingernails' – but the concert had forcefully put minimalism on the Uptown map. Drawing parallels with Stravinsky's Rite of Spring scandal was de ngueur.
Listening to recordings of Four Organs, which range from the original BSO line-up (appropriately pairing Reich with a two-piano recording of The Rite) to a more recent and surprisingly respectful reading by the Bang On a Can All-Stars, one still senses the music's power to shock. Reich only half-jokingly calls Four Organs his 'punk-rock piece', and the connection does bear some examination. Both minimalism and punk emerged in reaction against similar excesses in their respective musical genres, and both styles had surprisingly brief histories in their pure form. As with the punk era, which in the words of critic James Wolcott 'lasted barely long enough for Sid Vicious to vomit on his shoes', the vitality of minimalism was quickly absorbed into mainstream composition, giving way to a much longer 'post-minimalist' period.
One of the leaders in that new movement was Reich himself, whose musical forces kept expanding until he somehow found himself writing for traditional orchestra. His cantata The Desert Music (1984) superbly harnesses his characteristic rhythmic complexity within a broader sonic framework. Three Movements (1986) is mostly a skilful reworking of Reich's previous ideas for smaller forces on a symphonic canvas, but in The Four Sections (1987), a 'concerto for orchestra' in all but name, the composer reveals a full mastery of the orchestral idiom.
But Reich soon turned away from this period as well, rejecting orchestral commissions on the grounds that 'my orchestra is not Wagner's or Mahier's', and claiming that his music needs the clarity of amplification. Listening to these pieces today, one hears an obvious connection to the mid-'80s works of John Adams, leaving the impression that what Reich was really avoiding was the wave of neo-Romanticism that was soon to wash over the style.
Tilson Thomas's definitive Nonesuch recordings of Reich's orchestral works contain barely a trace of Romantic excess. Instead, rhythmic intensity firmly meets with emotional restraint, not unlike the later works of Stravinsky which the conductor had also explored extensively. Throughout the recordings a palpable connection links composer and conductor, as if the two veterans of their own generation's Rite of Spring were still trading stories from the front lines.