Four Organs and Phase Patterns come from a time when minimalist composer Steve Reich was in an obsessively scientific mode. They establish a new language, while arguing for their very right to exist.
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Unlike some other famous works by the minimalist pioneer Steve Reich, Four Organs is not the least bit soothing. It doesn’t murmur or churn; it squawks, sort of, digging into your nerves like a hangnail: “Stop, stop, I confess,” someone reportedly wailed at the work’s premiere. A concertgoer rapped her shoe on the stage at the same performance, like Khrushchev at the 1960 United Nations General Assembly. Reich described the scene years later with evident pleasure as a “riot.”
As a result, it acquired a reputation in Steve Reich’s canon. It is unloved, the black-sheep son that will never reap the adulation of Music for 18 Musicians or Different Trains. But the thing is, Reich designed it for discomfort. The whole piece consists of four Farfisa organs, hardly peaceful instruments, leaning on one long dominant eleventh chord. This chord, the dominant eleventh, is a “home” chord with bits and notes of other places lingering in it. It is inherently uneasy, rooted to the spot with one eye over its shoulder. Even if you’ve never looked at a page of written music in your life, you can just feel the tendons pulling in its harmonic makeup. Listening to this piece in headphones, with multiple Farfisas pulling at this one chord like dogs fighting over a sock, I sometimes had to remind myself to unclench my jaw.
This record, reissued by the San Francisco-based label Superior Viaduct, was originally released in 1970 by Shandar, a small French label that made an outsized impact on American musical modernism: in its decade-long existence, the imprint managed to release works by Albert Ayler, La Monte Young, Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra, and many others. Like any good champions of the musical avant-garde, they were eventually punished by fate: in 1979, a flood destroyed most of their original vinyl stock, effectively ending the enterprise.
But for a while, places like Shandar were safe harbor for then-misfits like Reich. The two pieces here, Four Organs and Phase Patterns, come from an era of Reich’s work when he was still in an obsessively scientific mode, boring down on a single capital-I Idea to extract from it whatever secrets might be unlocked from it. The idea here was his first big one, and the one that he remains most associated with: If you took two tones, set them apart from each other, and then moved them in and out of frequency incrementally, you could push open a gate of perception. The idea began with tape loops, but Reich soon moved it into live instrumentation, and then pushed its way into larger forces, where that original idea could be heard more as a whisper more than a shriek. Here, it is the work of four monomaniacally focused musicians: The Farfisas are played by Steve Reich and Philip Glass, joined by Arthur “Art” Bixler Murphy and Steve Chambers, while Jon Gibson supplies the steady maraca shakes.
These early works have a fierceness, a pointed urgency to them, the way that early works in new styles tend to: They are not only establishing a new language but also arguing for their very right to exist in the same breath. “Phase Patterns,” the second composition on this recording, has a similar feel: To layman ears, it might sound like the beginning of a long Ray Manzarek organ solo that caught a snag in a tree branch mid-ascent. It also might sound, to digital-age music fans, like an intentionally corrupted recording, something that had been spliced on a laptop. But that’s where the dizzy energy of these recordings come from: Behind these odd, irregular shapes are four musicians counting measures and beats as if their lives depended on it.
All of this makes the piece sound like torture, which of course it is not — it is a sensory challenge, the same way a deep massage can be. When the masseuse leans their elbow into the soft tissue under your shoulder blade, you groan but you don’t yelp; you trust that when they are done you will feel the benefits of the discomfort. So it is with your ears and mind and Four Organs. It is good to have your patience stretched, your senses tugged. Minimalism was often thought of as smooth churn, something to help regulate your breathing and help you zone out. But that’s only one function it serves; it can also tunnel deep into areas of your nervous system that other music doesn’t even think to aim for.