the pulitzer to steve reich is overdue


The Pulitzer to Steve Reich is overdue. Long overdue. He was composing innovative, disruptive music (disruptive in a good way, as in “disruptive technology”) in the 70’s that, along with the music of Glass, Riley and Young, radically changed the way a lot of us thought about music, even more than Cage changed our ideas. I personally don’t care about the Pulitzer, since it’s usually awarded to academically acceptable composers, or rarely an iconoclast like Ives, but only for innocuous work (listen to Ives, Symphony No. 3 and then wonder why this was worthy of a prize but not two of the greatest works by an American ever, his Symphony No. 4 and the Piano Sonata No 2 (Concord, MA)). Cage, Partch, Feldman, Nancarrow—not Pulitzer-worthy. And for years, it seemed like SR would be eternally snubbed by the Pulitzer committee almost as Ralph Shapey was.

Now, is his Double Sextet more worthy than Drumming or Music for Eighteen Musicians? Probably not. But it’s a seismic event that he won at all, so I’m happy.

I remember back in the 70’s when I first became aware of his music. My dentist, Dr. Irwin Cott, brought his music to my attention by giving me a program of Reich’s after he attended a concert in NYC (I think it might have been at the Whitney Museum and included Clapping Music). Cott befriended Reich when the two of them were patients undergoing herniorrhaphy at the Shouldice Clinic. Dr. Cott didn’t get Reich’s music, but was amazed by how many young people were in attendance and how devoted they were to Reich’s music. So I checked it out—my father had the original LP of Come Out and as much as I agreed with the politics, didn’t like the music. Same with everything else I tried: Violin Phase, Drumming, Six Pianos, etc. But I kept trying. Around 1978 or so my neurons began to click into place after listening to the radio premiere of Glass’s seminal work Einstein on the Beach and I was hooked. I spent a lunch hour one Saturday during my music studies to run to Sam Goody’s record store and bought Einstein, Music for 18 Musicians (I hadn’t yet heard it) and Stravinsky’s Cantata. When I got back to my Juilliard Pre-College class, my teacher, who is a composer I won’t name, asked to see what I bought. He loved that I had obtained the Stravinsky, but was taken aback by the Glass and Reich. His comment: “Well, I guess it’s nice to dance to.”

I had many opportunities to meet Reich during my college years, as I interviewed him for a new music program I had on WHPK-FM. I went to his old loft in SoHo as well as his apartment near City Hall, met his wife and then young son, and still have an autographed copy of the first edition of Reich’s Writings About Music. Reich always struck me as having a singleness of purpose, and while I haven’t been as taken with much of his recent music, am glad my dentist’s hernia companion finally got some of the recognition he deserves. Now I’d like to see some recognition of other new music composers who are under-celebrated. I’m hoping the Pulitzer to Reich is the start of a trend, not a way of shutting up the new music community by finally giving SR the prize after so many years of people noting his obvious omission.