There’s never been any question: New York-based composer and minimalist pioneer Steve Reich is cooler than all of us. Always has been, always will be. I mean, think about it: who among us could get away with wearing that beat-up baseball cap around throughout the entirety of our professional lives and have it be attributed not to our unwillingness to cooperate with workplace standards, but rather to some eccentric outward symbol of our staggering/precocious/whimsical (at times) inward genius? Yeah, exactly. No one. (Face it, not even Ashton Kutcher is doing a good job wearing hats for a living anymore!)
But now, just in case there was any lingering doubt whatsoever, he’s gone and won the Pulitzer Prize for music this week, for his 2008 piece Double Sextet. A good deal (though not necessarily entirely) less sexual than it sounds, the work calls for two identical sextets of instruments -- each made up of flute, clarinet, violin, cello, vibraphone, and piano -- and can be performed in one of two ways: with 12 musicians, or, as in the case of its world premiere last May with the Eighth Blackbird ensemble, with six musicians playing against a recording of themselves. Mixing live music with recordings (or, heck, “sampling” in general) is nothing new to Reich though, who has spent his life plumbing the depths of the beauty that can be created with tape machines, loops, phasing, texture, and polyrhythms (sound familiar, Animal Collective fans?)
"It's the idea of writing basically unison canons," a much-smarter-than-you-and-me Reich says of Double Sextet. "The same timbre playing against itself, so that when they intertwine, you don't hear the individual voice; you hear the composite. Now, if you have several composites going on at the same time, you really get to an interesting situation, and that's what's going on in Double Sextet... I'm very glad that this particular piece got it, because I do think it's one of the better pieces I've done in the past few years." Notice the “in the past few years” part. Yeah, ol' boy could have won a dozen or so Pulitzers for a myriad of earlier badass and highly influential works, such as Music for 18 Musicians, Electric Counterpoint, Different Trains, Violin Phase, Clapping Music, and of course the loop-phase-masterworks It’s Gonna Rain and Come Out. Not familiar with these pieces yet? Well you’d best check them out before you go around issuing any declarations about how “groundbreaking” Merriweather Post Pavillion is.