Minimalist with a message

A premiere confirms there's more to Steve Reich than meets the ear

Steve Reich is, arguably, the most gifted of the first-generation "minimalist" composers that includes Terry Riley, La Monte Young and Philip Glass. More importantly, in a music not known for literal associations, Reich has engaged with the conflicts of Jews and their history more tellingly than any other living composer.

Steve Reich is, arguably, the most gifted of the first-generation "minimalist" composers that includes Terry Riley, La Monte Young and Philip Glass. More importantly, in a music not known for literal associations, Reich has engaged with the conflicts of Jews and their history more tellingly than any other living composer.

Reich was born in New York in October 1936 and raised as a secular, assimilated Jew. Like so many assimilated Jews, he had little awareness of his religious and cultural heritage. His earliest compositions - those from the mid-Sixties that put him on the map - were inspired less by external stimulae than by a fascination with "process": "I do not mean the process of composition, but rather pieces of music that are, literally, processes." But this was to change. Reich was reaching for his roots. "I had not heard Hebrew chant, I did not know the Hebrew language, I did not know the Torah was read in annual cycle ... when I was bar-mitzvahed, I did lip-sync."

In 1974, he met the video artist Beryl Korot (they married in 1976) and rediscovering Judaism became a joint venture, one that has remained central to their way of life to this day.

Tehillim, written in 1981, is not only Reich's first "Jewish" work, it is also his first conventionally conceived vocal composition. But typical of Reich's approach is his love of the abstract: the text - verses from four Psalms set in their original Biblical Hebrew - creates, by association, strong messages but remains veiled in its immediate meaning to a wider public. This "distancing" remains crucial to Reich's Jewish works. It serves him well intellectually and emotionally, the punch delivered far exceeding the technical accomplishment.

Reich today sees himself not so much as an Orthodox Jew - he is deeply observant - but as a "traditional" Jew. The words are carefully chosen; not every orthodoxy is observed. Ask him how he regards Zionism, and a lecture on the history of Palestine and the Jewish State pours forth - for the past 25 years, he has been reading mainly Jewish religious texts.

You Are (Variations) is Reich's latest work, and it, too, has Jewish ramifications. The title comes from the opening text - "You are wherever your thoughts are" - by an 18th-century Hasidic rabbi. There are three more sayings, one from Psalm 16, "I place the eternal before me" (sung in Hebrew); another, the philosopher Wittgenstein's "Explanations come to an end somewhere"; and a third from the Talmud, "Say little and do much" (also sung in Hebrew).

This work, first performed in Los Angeles last October, is one of joy - it's back to syncopated rhythms and the heady clank of pianos and mallet instruments. But the aphoristic messages of You Are are clear: Reich remains cool.

'Tehillim' and the UK premiere of 'You Are (Variations)' will be performed by Ensemble Modern at the Barbican, London EC2 (0845 120 7550; www.barbican.org.uk), on 18 January

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