Somewhere in the deeper recesses of my teenage memories, I can somehow conjure the image with photographic precision: flipping through discs at a local bookstore, I came across a sepia-toned album cover consisting of several layers of rocks with mountains on the horizon and a burnt sky looming above. The album: Steve Reich’s The Desert Music, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas and the Brooklyn Philharmonic. I took the album home and let the awe set in.
As nearly everybody who has ever listened to the work of Steve Reich knows, his music is epiphanic. There is the world before encountering a piece like The Desert Music, and there is the world after. The piece, which sets poetry from William Carlos Williams’s collection The Desert Music (1949-1954) to music, deals with the moral and ethical repercussions and implications of mankind’s development of nuclear weaponry. The desert in question is left beautifully ambiguous: whether it is the test site of Los Alamos, Moses wandering Sinai for twenty years, Abraham taking Isaac to Mount Moriah, the eerie silence of a post-apocalyptic landscape, or simply a desert of one’s imagination is unclear. There is a spiritual sensibility in this music that for me draws clear comparisons to Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, or the exquisite enigmas of Antonioni’s films. And like Bach and Antonioni, Reich’s work feels to me simultaneously completely unforeseen yet inevitable.
A few years following this personal discovery, I found a collection of interviews from 1976 by Walter Zimmermann entitled Desert Plants: Conversations with 23 American Musicians. Zimmermann, then a young, unknown, curious and defiant German composer, sought to find out how radical non-commercial musicians in the United States managed to subsist under the hard economic conditions of that era. Fascinated by the “beauty and vigor of this existence,” Zimmermann likened the musicians he interviewed to the miraculous plants that heroically assert their presence on the desert landscape, despite not having access to water.
Zimmermann visited Reich as he was compiling these interviews (ironically, on a day of downpour), and Reich declined to be interviewed, instead contributing the title page and a handwritten program note to the piece that Reich was in the process of finishing called Music for 21 Musicians and Singers—a work that would later became known as Music for 18 Musicians.
In late 2018, as artistic director of Monday Evening Concerts in Los Angeles, I myself presented a concert of Reich’s groundbreaking tape piece Come Out (1966) and Music for 18 Musicians (1974-76) paired with the music of the 12th-century composers Léonin and Pérotin. I sat down with Reich a few weeks later to discuss his 1983 masterpiece The Desert Music, which in many ways picks up where Music for 18 Musicians leaves off.