I went to Steve Reich's birthday party

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steve reich at carnegie hall

If there were a Holy Trinity of living minimalist composers, it would be made up of Philip Glass, Terry Riley, and Steve Reich. The first two have flirted with the mainstream (Pete Townshend citing Riley’s A Rainbow in Curved Air as an influence on some of The Who’s most iconic songs of the early 70s period, Glass with his many film scores and namedrops from Bowie and Eno), while Reich has spent over half a decade being the guy quietly influencing dozens of brilliant artists. From Krautrock to post-rock and even Sufjan Stevens, the repetitive, almost mechanic beauty of Reich’s compositions has been one of the most important contributions to modern music whether we realize it or not.

His influence was on display at his 75th birthday celebration at Carnegie Hall. Reich debuted some of his latest work and showcased more recently written pieces, always worth revisiting. The most talked about piece of the evening was Reich’s WTC 9/11, written for and performed by Kronos Quartet. Much like he did with 1988’s Different Trains, Reich takes the horror and pain of a specific time (Different Trains dealt with World War II America and Europe, 9/11 WTC, obviously September 11) and turns it into a narrative that not only tells a story, but asks questions using the voices of people who made it through. With 9/11 WTC, it’s the voices of NORAD air traffic controllers, firefighters, residents of downtown Manhattan, and the woeful chant of a Jewish cantor. As soon as the sound finished bouncing off the walls of Carnegie Hall, I wondered at the chorus of light sobs rising from the audience.

I was honored to experience WTC 9/11’s New York debut, but I was most anticipating 2008’s 2×5, which uses the idea of a traditional rock band setup, but applies it to the Bang on a Can All-Stars. The piece was the definition of epic, and would have made King Crimson fans giddy with delight. It was possibly the most prog rock thing I’ve heard since the time I fell asleep at a Pink Floyd laser light show when I was thirteen.

When it was all finished, the birthday boy took the stage with over a dozen or so virtuosos, playing music written by one of the great geniuses of our time.