Steve Reich lost interest in serialism early. A student of Luciano Berio at Mills College, Reich quickly realized the melodic limitations of twelve-tone composition. Serialist rhythm was a different story. Reich was enamored with the processes and repetition inherent to serial rhythm and it helped to form what is, without a doubt, the prevailing link between Reich's work over the past forty years; his complex, innovative use of rhythm. It's absolutely the case with Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ, a well-regarded piece nevertheless overshadowed by what is widely considered one of Reich's seminal compositions, Music for 18 Musicians.
Premiered in 1973, Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ deals in large part with Reich's process of "augmentation", first realized in his work Four Organs. Augmentation is, according to Reich, "the lengthening of duration of notes previously played in shorter note values creating the sense of slowing down the musical motion." His initial intention, very early in his career, was to gradually slow a tape loop over a long period of time while having it maintain the same pitch. The initial idea was scribbled down as a fragment in his notebook, simply stating, "Short chord gets long." The project never came to fruition, as it was technologically impossible in the 1960's. Instead, he recreated the sound with live instruments in Four Organs (1970), repeating one dense dominant chord over increasing periods of time over a constant maraca backbeat. The intention is really to create a sense in the listener of time slowing. Reich presents the visual of a "film loop gradually presented in slower and slower motion." The sustained harmonies and chords underneath the music and the overlapping, slowly shifting melodic lines are both trademark Reich devices. In interviews Reich (along with other early minimalists like Terry Riley and Philip Glass) has cited Coltrane's Africa/Brass as a huge influence, describing his work as...
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