In Pursuit of Peace | Program Notes

**The program notes below were first published for the original performance of The Desert Music with the New World Symphony in 2016**

The Desert Music (1982-83; chamber version 2001)

STEVE REICH (b. 1936)

Brass arrangement by Alan Pierson


I. (FAST)

II. (MODERATE)

III. (SLOW—MODERATE—SLOW)

IV. (MODERATE)

V. (FAST)


Steve Reich was pivotal in the rise of a musical style known as “minimalism,” one of the most influential compositional approaches of the last 50 years. Following his studies at The Juilliard School and Mills College, Reich moved away from musical academia; he made his living driving a taxi in San Francisco and connected with other West Coast pioneers, most importantly Terry Riley. Reich’s first breakthrough works utilized techniques of tape looping, as heard in It’s Gonna Rain (1965) and Come Out (1966). After moving to New York, he established his own ensemble, Steve Reich and Musicians, to perform his multi-layered, pulsing scores that drew upon African and Asian percussion patterns. With his landmark Music for 18 Musicians (1974-76), Reich demonstrated the impressive scope and range possible in music constructed from repetitive cycles. A recording released on the ECM label in 1978 sold over 100,000 copies in its first year, and Reich’s broad popularity brought with it new respect (and paying commissions) from the musical establishment. A co-commission from West German Broadcasting in Cologne and the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York led Reich to compose The Desert Music (1982-83), his largest work since Music for 18 Musicians. The title and text came from the American poet William Carlos Williams (1883-1963), a practicing doctor whose direct language and everyday inspiration made him a hero to the Beat poets and other trendsetters of the 1950s and ‘60s. Reich organized fragments of Williams’ poetry into a five-movement arch cycle, with the long central movement subdivided into its own three-part, symmetrical form. An ensemble of voices and a percussion-heavy orchestra expanded upon the sound palette of Reich’s own group, including the integral use of amplification. (This performance features a reduced orchestration prepared in 2001 by Alan Pierson, music director of the new music ensemble Alarm Will Sound.)

The fast opening movement, in classic Reich fashion, first presents a chorale-like chord sequence in a series of pulsing swells. When the singers introduce the text, they participate in the same kind of fragmented, interlocking cycles, splitting the word “begin” into its separate syllables and passing them from voice to voice, eventually adding the next phrase, “my friend.”

The entirety of The Desert Music is an immersive experience, in which the sounds of words take on their own meanings beyond the poetry itself (suffused, according to Reich, with an undercurrent that addresses nuclear warfare). As Reich wrote in his program note to the work, “In the center of the piece is the text … which says, ‘it is a principle of music / to repeat the theme. Repeat / and repeat again, / as the pace mounts. The / theme is difficult / but no more difficult / than the facts to be / resolved.’ Those at all familiar with my music will know how apt those words are for me and particularly this piece which, among other things, addresses that basic ambiguity between what the text says, and its pure sensuous sounds.”

— Copyright © 2016 Aaron Grad

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