Steve Reich’s ‘Drumming’

Originally published on December 9, 1971

It’s not very often that a long complex piece of new music receives a standing ovation. What was it about Steve Reich‘s ‘Drumming‘ that brought the audience to its feet at the Museum of Modern Art on December 3? The simple fact that 13 musicians had performed intricate rhythms with amazing precision for an hour and half no doubt had a lot to do with it. Or perhaps it was because the simple white-note scales were refreshing to ears grown weary of dissonance. Or perhaps it was the joyous blend of marimbas, glockenspiels, drums, and voices that turned everyone on. Or was it the pleasure of seeing African and European elements so thoroughly fused—almost as if we really did live in one world. Or perhaps it was because the music had spoken directly to the senses, with the sound itself never sacrificed for the more intellectual rhythmic side of the piece.

For me, the most gratifying thing about ‘Drumming’ is that it achieves a human quality, which I sometimes find lacking in Reich’s work. Although there was a lot of amplification going on, the volume was never uncomfortable, and the effect was not as dependent on electronics as much as Reich’s music is. Like most of his work, the music moves ahead very gradually, one subtle little shift at a time, but the shifts are less predictable and more interesting than in his tape pieces, where machines are often in control.

Because Reich always limits his materials so severely, unity is never a problem, and there is enough difference between the four sections of the piece so that it is never quite boring either. The first section introduces the rhythmic ideas with a set of small tuned drums and male voices. The second combines marimbas and three female singers in a sound which, for me at least, was thoroughly intoxicating. The third section, which seems shorter, combines glockenspiels, whistling, and piccolos in a rather shrill sound, and the final section brings everything together in an unpretentious climax.

Having said all that, I have the feeling I should come down to earth and find something to pick at. After all, there must surely be flaws in ‘Drumming.’ But I’m still feeling very good about the piece as a whole, and I can’t get into the mood to look for them. If they were very serious, they would surely have occurred to me long before this.

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