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Steve Reich: a beacon of hipness in classical world

Composer Steve Reich won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize in music for his piece Double Sextet.

Seth Harrison / AP/Seth Harrison / AP

American composer Steve Reich has received many awards, including a Pulitzer Prize for Music, a Polar Music Prize and a Grammy, but one honour that speaks volumes is the high praise he has received in the Village Voice. When the trendy New York weekly declares someone "America's greatest living composer," you can be sure that the composer in question isn't just a remarkable musician, but also a pretty cool guy.

With his trademark baseball cap and his plain-speaking ways, Reich, now 73, remains a beacon of hipness in the classical music world. As such, he is an apt choice for Soundstreams Canada to invite to its Cool Drummings Festival, which wraps up Thursday night at Toronto's Koerner Hall with a retrospective concert of his music.

Reich is often called a "minimalist" - one of a generation of composers that emerged in the 1960s and 70s that also included Philip Glass and John Adams. All adopted a style of music that was often highly repetitive and busy-sounding on its surface, yet built on slow, gradual changes in structure.

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However, Reich has mixed feelings about the "minimalism" label. "I mean, you know, it's okay for journalists to use," he says from his home in New York. "But to me, it's absurd - I prefer just 'music composer.' "

As Reich explains it, the minimalists developed a distinctive American style - a clear and deliberate break with the dissonant, angular sound of European modernism.

"I was not in step with Boulez, Stockhausen or Cage," he says, distancing himself from two prominent Europeans and also the United States' high priest of the avant-garde. "That was a kind of music that we, as a group, didn't like. We were listening to jazz, Motown and the Beatles - and also to West African music, Indian music and Indonesian gamelan from Bali. This is what was in the air, and this is what composers who had their ears open were hearing. If these things hadn't been in the air, our music wouldn't have happened. And that's why it happened in America."

Aft first, the minimalists had an uphill battle: Their music sounded strikingly different than the way contemporary classical works were "supposed" to sound. One critic (Samuel Lipman) scornfully dismissed it all as "pop music for intellectuals."

Yet Reich felt strongly that he knew where new music was going - so strongly that he penned a little essay called Some Optimistic Predictions (1970) About the Future of Music. Impressively, 40 years after he wrote it, much of what he predicted has come true. Especially striking is his claim that "the pulse and the concept of clear tonal centre will re-emerge as basic sources of new music." This was heresy in 1970, but barely raises eyebrows in new-music circles today.

Reich is clearly proud of his prescience, but he bristles at the suggestion that Optimistic Predictions was intended as marching orders for the minimalist movement. "I wasn't trying to write a manifesto!" he protests. "Manifestos have had a bad history, and have done a lot of harm in the world. I was just taking note of what was interesting to me at the time. My hunch was that these things were going to carry on."

Does he care to make any more predictions about the future of music? No, he doesn't.

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One thing Reich didn't propose in 1970 was that minimalism would eventually be embraced by the classical music establishment. It was his colleagues, Glass and Adams, who were largely responsible for this trend, composing big operas and symphonic works that have been presented by New York's Metropolitan Opera and prestigious orchestras around the world.

Such plush musical environments don't appeal much to Reich. Throughout his career, he has rarely strayed far from his small-is-beautiful roots, preferring to write for chamber ensembles, often with a strong percussive edge. He wrote much of his music for his own Steve Reich Ensemble, a group of dedicated musicians that toured extensively in the 1970s and 80s, but is now inactive.

It's the small-scale Reich who will be celebrated Thursday night at Koerner Hall. The program will include Clapping Music (1972), a piece for two musicians using nothing but their bare hands as instruments. (Reich himself will be one of the hand-clappers.) There's also Music for Pieces of Wood (1973), which, as the title suggests, is all about striking small wooden sticks, called claves, together.

Also on the program will be two pieces written just last year. One is 2x5, scored for a five-piece rock group and a second, prerecorded, five-piece rock group. The other is Mallet Quartet, to be played by the Toronto percussion group Nexus.

Reich points out that three musicians in Nexus - Russell Hartenberger, Bob Becker and Garry Kvistad - are veterans of the Steve Reich Ensemble. "If these guys can't play my music," he says confidently, "nobody can."

Steve Reich Live! takes place 8 p.m. Thursday at Toronto's Koerner Hall.

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