New Vinyl Reissue Of Steve Reich's 'Drumming' Is An Aural Delight
It wasn’t too long ago that a friend of mine asked me about why I enjoy listening to LPs. It’s not because I feel they sound superior to compact discs, I explained—though I do enjoy the rich, warm sound of a good vinyl record. Instead, I like the way the LP format makes me focus on the music I’m listening to more intently than I would with a CD, let alone Spotify or my trusty iPod Shuffle. Those formats have their place, but they also feed into our growing national case of ADHD. When I sit down with a beautiful album, my tendency is to let it play all the way through. And more often than not, I’m listening more intently than I am with a disc or iPod.
Which is why it was a joy to see Deutsche Grammophon reissue this month a three-album set of minimalist composer Steve Reich’s magnum opus from his early period, “Drumming” (1971). Two LPs are devoted to the titular work, which runs over an hour in length, and a third album features “Six Pianos” (1973) on one side and “Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ” (1973) on the other.
“Drumming” is based on a simple rhythmic pattern that up to a dozen players tap out on either tuned percussion instruments, marimbas, or glockenspiels. Wordless vocals are also added into the mix late in the running time of the piece. Beginning with what sounds and feels like the slow drip of a faucet, each player adds his or her sound to the ensemble. By slowly shifting (or “phasing”) rhythms across the players by one beat, the piece gradually builds into a polyrhythmic delight. I struggled for a while to explain my love of this style of music to friends, but in the liner notes to this release, composer Steve Reich puts into words what I couldn’t:
“Performing and listening to a gradual musical process resembles … placing your feet in the sand by the ocean’s edge and watching, feeling, and listening to the waves gradually bury them.”
And on the speed of which the process moves: “It resembles watching the minute hand on a watch – you can perceive it moving after you stay with it a little while.”
To that, I’d add that listening to Reich’s early music is almost like a game. Careful listening to “Drumming” reveals cross-rhythms that aren’t immediately apparent. By focusing your mind on one sound or another, you can actively shift the rhythms you’re hearing to create new patterns. It’s the aural equivalent of op art, and it’s a lot of fun.
Side five of the set features the 25-minute long “Six Pianos,” another experiment in phasing. Of all the fascinating works in this set, it’s probably the least interesting only because of the similar timbre of the six instruments playing at once, even if they’re using the aforementioned technique of shifting rhythms. Nevertheless, the overtones of the ringing pianos create some interesting illusions; at one point I could have sworn I heard a French horn! The last piece in the set, “Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ,” takes the phase shifting and introduces key and meter changes, creating startling effects each time they gradually happen.
When “Drumming” was released in 1974, the famed Deutsche Grammophon record label was nearing the end of an experimental wing of its production house focusing on avant-garde music. Included in this vinyl reissue of the set are pages of correspondence between the composer and representatives from DG about everything from the sequencing of the LPs, to travel arrangements for the musicians to record in Germany, to the price of the 3 LP set (Reich recommended a relatively affordable price point close to $15). In the end, “Drumming” went over budget in recording and production, and while it didn’t recoup its costs, it became one of DG’s fastest-selling avant-garde releases, eventually moving 5,763 units in one year.
Despite not breaking the Billboard charts, Reich’s music would go on to influence musicians of all genres, from ambient pioneer Brian Eno to the shifting time signatures of 1980s-era King Crimson, to Reich’s minimalist composer colleagues Philip Glass and John Adams. In the 1980s and 1990s, bands like The Orb and Radiohead sampled Reich or cited him as an influence. To celebrate Steve Reich’s 80th birthday this October, “Drumming” has been lovingly packaged in a brand-new limited edition 180 gram vinyl set, with an expanded program booklet and superior sound. As I mentioned above, the LP format is the perfect way to experience “Drumming” and its cousins. Position your speakers accordingly, drop the needle, and take a trip.