Post-indignation: Steve Reich’s Piano Phase

 De-phased B minor sequences - enter the trance! © Charles Thibo
De-phased B minor sequences – enter the trance! © Charles Thibo

My initial reaction to the incident in Cologne was indignation: How could the audience in the Philharmonie be so narrow-minded and react in such a primitive way to Mahan Esfahani’s performance of “Piano Phase”, a work written by Steve Reich in 1967? 1967 – that is 16 years after Karlheinz Stockhausen started to experiment with new acoustical and electronical effects at the WDR sound studios – in Cologne. 1967 – that is 49 years ago, half a decade, and the world of contemporary classical music has moved beyond both Stockhausen and Reich. Listening to Reich is a delight compared to listening to some of the pieces written by Pierre Boulez or Wolfgang Rihm for example.

18 minutes of trance

I am fully aware that contemporary classical music is not everyone’s taste. I find it intellectually stimulating, but if I want to enjoy music, I stick to Baroque, the Vienna classics and Romanticism. “Piano Phase” lasts 18 minutes. Esfahani had to break off after four minutes, and the audience missed the chance to read the composer’s message. Why? The trick of the piece is to play a sequence in B minor on two pianos – or a harpsichord and a tape recorder as in Cologne – and to gradually de-phase the two pianos to create acoustic interferences and provoke a certain trance-like effect.

Loops and asychrony

Steve Reich was born in New York in 1936 and studied composition at the Juilliard School from 1958 to 1961. Later he joined the San Francisco Tape Music Center. The first pieces he wrote all deal with loops, sound sequences played backwards or de-phasing and moving within a piece slowly out of synchrony. Some of these pieces including “Piano Phase” have been recorded by the Ensemble Avantgarde. In a later phase, starting around 1976, Reich turned to the music of his Jewish ancestors and studied Hebrew cantilene.

In a way I must thank the audience in Cologne: If it hadn’t thrown a tantrum in the concert hall, I probably wouldn’t have become interested in Reich’s music at this point. I knew the composer’s name, but had no intention ever to study his works. So keep calm, Cologne, and listen up!

© Charles Thibo

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