How small a thought

OK, so this one fell through my cybercracks. I realized once I saw the latest Facebook entry from the SDG office that I missed Steve Reich’s 75th birthday by one day. But I couldn’t let this go past without a brief comment from this blog, so I’m playing very rapid catch-up here. I can still remember the huge impact that my first encounter with Reich’s Music for 18 musicians made on me as a teenager back in the 1980s, and my enthusiasm for his music has remained unabated ever since.

reich18musicians-300x300At a time when so many composers have either restricted themselves to purely formal concerns in their music or else sought ideological ‘engagement’ while neglecting issues of musical language considered in its own right , Reich has stood out in combining a penetrating exploration of the very nature of music with a courageous desire to tackle the ‘big questions’. I have always felt that Reich has something of the Hebrew prophetic mantle to him, as of all the major composers working in what we at SDG refer to as ‘the Biblical tradition’ he is perhaps the one who has demonstrated the most consistent and thought-provoking engagement with modern history in a way that often provides a word of timely warning yet never despairs. Steve Reich’s music remains fundamentally luminous even when addressing the rise of Nazi Germany (Hindenburg from Three Tales) and the Shoah (Different Trains), issues of ethnic and inter-religious conflict (Daniel Variations, The Cave), or the threat to humanity posed by technology, whether in the form of genetic manipulation (Dolly) or the development of nuclear weaponry (Bikini). At 75 his work retains a troubling yet inspiring sense of ethical urgency perhaps best captured in the chilling lines from William Carlos Williams’ poem The Orchestra written after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, unforgettably set by the composer  in The Desert Music:

‘Man has survived hitherto because he was too ignorant to know how to realize his wishes. Now that he can realize them, he must either change them or perish.’

For an extended consideration of Steve Reich’s rootedness in the Hebrew scriptures, click here for the text of a lecture entitled Mend its fractures, for it is quaking – modern musical settings of the Psalms given in 2009 at the St Andrews University Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts, containing a discussion of Tehillim, one of my favourite works of Reich which still sounds as fresh now as when it was written in 1981.

In my mind as I was researching my subject-matter was the search for points of commonality between three vitally important streams of musical and spiritual renewal in music in the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries – the ‘New Jewish music’ emerging from North America (Reich, Aaron Jay Kernis, David Lang, …), the music of the former Eastern Bloc (Gorecki, Pärt, Gubaidulina, Silvestrov, Vasks …), and the French art associated with the Catholic intellectual revival and the birth of the nouvelle théologie that crucially shaped the Second Vatican Council (Olivier Messiaen).

Naturally these three strands of Biblically-inspired music are extremely diverse in musical idiom, but I do not think it is riding rough-shod over their particularities to claim that all these composers share a commitment to at least three things. The most obvious is an unfashionable commitment to transcendence that flies in the face of a prevailing materialism (whether in its Western consumer or Marxist dialectical variants). A second is the sense that the way forward lies not in a rupture with all tradition but rather an avant-garde retrieval of ancient sources; there are several names for this stance, whether one uses the French Catholic term ressourcement, or the Eastern Orthodox phrase ‘neo-patristic synthesis’ (‘going forward with the Fathers’) or talks more philosophically of an alliance of the pre-modern and the post-modern against the pathologies of modernity. The third is a belief in the value of simplicity as a remedy for a society built on self-aggrandizement (if Messiaen might seem a somewhat odd companion for the minimalists in this respect, it should be remembered that alongside many passages of dazzling complexity one can also find many movements of pure monody or pieces employing nothing more than the simplest texture of melody and chordal accompaniment).

In Steve Reich’s case this striving for simplicity is beautifully encapsulated by his Proverb of 1995 – a work drawing on Pérotin in which his kinship with Arvo Pärt is at its most musically and spiritually apparent -, with its words taken from Wittgenstein’s Culture and Value: ‘How small a thought it takes to fill a whole life’. Reich’s art is, like Pärt’s, one of extraordinary concentration, a re-discovery of the essence of contemplation as the elimination of the superfluous for the sake of focusing on the ‘one thing necessary’. Or, to quote a second aphorism of Wittgenstein which Reich also cites in his notes on Proverb:

‘If you want to go down deep you do not need to travel far’.


Ludwig Wittgenstein seated between his sisters, 1920

In an epoch characterized by an insatiable craving for hyper-stimulation and a consumerist approach to the acquisition not only of goods but also experiences, this is surely a message worth heeding. For it to have emerged simultaneously in divergent geographical contexts and religious traditions leaves me at least with the impression that Someone is trying to tell us something. We need to decide whether we will live as eternal tourists endlessly flitting over the surface of things, or as pilgrims in search of depth. And we must do so not merely out of a concern for our own personal spiritual fulfillment, but rather because it is becoming increasingly evident that if our desires remain unchanged, we will indeed all perish.


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