Steve Reich: Phases (A Nonesuch Retrospective)

Five discs of Steve Reich works for roughly $40 comes out to $8 per disc. That alone is reason enough to get the "specially-priced" boxed set Phases: A Nonesuch Retrospective.

Sure, you could squabble over what was included or excluded — no Clapping Music? — but Nonesuch had already released a comprehensive set of Reich recordings in 2005. The composer celebrated his 70th birthday in 2006, and the label compiled Phases to commemorate the occasion. It serves more as an introduction to the composer for new listeners, and for the bargain-minded, it’s a real deal.

I’ve admired Reich for years, and I own some of the recordings included in Phases. But I can’t say I’ve explored his works as thoroughly as I would have liked. This set gave me the opportunity to fill in some gaps.

The heavy hitters of Reich’s catalog are featured on Phases. The first disc, of course, is Music for 18 Musicians, a mesmerizing, pulsating piece generally considered his masterpiece.

The remaining discs don’t explicitly follow themes, but groups of similar works appear together. Disc three consists of a number of "counterpoint" pieces — New York Counterpoint, Cello Counterpoint and Electric Counterpoint. Percussion instruments take the emphasis on disc five with Music For Mallet Instruments, Voices, And Organ and Drumming. Disc four emphasizes the human voice with The Desert Music, Proverb and Reich’s early tape piece, Come Out.

Reich’s work has a number of consistent elements — a pulse, a heavy reliance on percussion. At the same time, he’s also managed to draw out a rich variety of works from a single style.

Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices, And Organ and Drumming may both be percussive works, but there’s no mistaking one for the other. The use of multimedia on Different Trains has no parallel with other works in the set — unless you count Come Out, which itself has a distinct identity. New York Counterpoint feels playful, while Cello Counterpoint seems more poignant.

That variety makes it very easy to get lost in Phases. I ripped all five discs to the hard drive, and I often find myself playing a good portion of the set in one sitting.

There isn’t anything on Phases that would interest long-time listeners, who could probably give the set as birthday or Christmas gifts to would-be Reich fans. But for anyone who have has yet to discover Reich’s works — and even for folks with a mild interest in the composer — Phases is a great way to start.