October 2006 has been Steve Reich month in New York City. It seems like there’s an event almost every day somewhere in town in celebration of his 70th birthday. And while I consider myself a huge Reich fan—I own every single recording of his music and bought most of them the day they came out—I must confess that I’ve felt little incentive to be at all these concerts. There’s just too much going on and I want to hear the music I haven’t heard yet.
However, I was in the audience at Zankel Hall on Sunday night because there was a piece on the program that I hadn’t heard: Daniel Variations, which received its American premiere on this concert. Sandwiching this characteristically radiant work with an assortment of Reich classics—signature works such as Piano Phase and Drumming plus the 2004 Pulitzer finalist Cello Counterpoint—was in some ways more unfair to it than the orchestra world’s perpetual habit of putting an unknown-sounding contemporary music premiere in between works by Beethoven and Brahms. Expectation, which is always driven by context, frequently gets in the way of a fair hearing of a piece of music on its own terms.
Inevitably comparisons will be drawn between this new half-hour piece in four sections for four singers, four pianos, string quartet, two clarinets, and six percussionists, and Drumming, also in four sections. Or the memories of Reich’s similarly quadripartite Four Sections for orchestra, or Tehillim, which featured four singers as well, etc. Such are the rules of the judgment game.
However, in this case, Reich pitted himself against something larger than his own oeuvre or even the canon of composed music. He pitted himself against headline news. Daniel Variations was born out of the kidnapping and violent murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan in February 2002. This was a particularly jarring and horrific act in what sometimes feels like an age of atrocity. But Reich responded to this brutality with a work celebrating Daniel Pearl’s life with beauty and joyousness. It turns out Pearl was a musician and Pearl’s music-loving parents were among the many ecstatic members in the audience that night.
Reich used his tools as a composer to create one of the few pearls—please pardon the unavoidable pun—in a sea of seeming hopelessness and despair. While this is something we can do in music that we unfortunately cannot do in the political sphere, it proves how music can ultimately be more valuable than politics.