Steve Reich: Phase to Face
A film by Eric Darmon and Franck Mallet. Idéale Audience 3058128 (DVD) or 3058124 (Blu-ray), 52 mins. (documentary), 28 mins. (bonus), subtitled
Steve Reich has been a major musical figure since the late 1960s. Along with Philip Glass, Terry Riley, La Monte Young, Terry Conrad and, later on, John Adams, Reich is regarded as a major composer of "musical Minimalism," a style originally paired with the work of sculptors and artists who had been dubbed Minimalists. These composers have very different sounds and particulars, but their music of the late '60s was characterized by a then-radical return to harmonic and melodic simplicity, usually in a texture predominated by continuously repeating musical motives that gradually transform into new ones, and by a deliberately abstract emotional effect.
Steve Reich: Phase to Face is a one-hour documentary by Eric Darmon and Franck Mallet. Centered on a series of Reich performances that occurred across Europe between 2007 and 2009, the film offers excerpts of pieces from throughout the composer's career. Reich, who is never once seen without his visored cap, offers a narration of his life and the origins and evolution of his musical style.
This evolution begins with Reich's great breakthrough via tape recordings into what we now usually refer to as "phase music." Here, sounding forces — be they tape loops or live players — perform a specific musical motive at slightly different speeds, causing the utterances of this motive to go out of phase with each other, occasionally to arrive back at a musical unison. Subsequently, Reich moved on to music featuring percussion. His 1970–71 extended work Drumming became one of the quintessential musical works of that era.
Eventually, Reich began writing for live singers as well, having them sing wordless musical motives, essentially as instrumental components of his larger ensemble. He then began setting texts to music in a more traditional vocal manner. Perhaps the finest of these works was Tehillim, his 1981 vocal and instrumental work featuring psalm settings in Hebrew. The next major breakthrough for Reich was his use of recorded speaking voices as sources of motives for instruments. The two most significant of Reich's works in this mode are his 1988 work Different Trains, for string quartet and voice tracks, which this writer regards as the most powerful of all Holocaust-related works, and his 1993 theatrical work The Cave.
Throughout the documentary, Reich is articulate and engaging in his observations about the music. There is not much discussion of his work of the past ten or so years. Arguably, there is good reason for this omission, as Reich's more recent efforts seem to be retrogressive and less vital than the main corpus of his output. Still, his music has always had an immediate accessibility, which has served as a great strength in his international following and provided an entranceway to listeners newly curious about contemporary music.
Steve Reich: Phase to Face offers an excellent overview of this important composer's career. Viewing it is an hour well spent.