Steve Reich – Nagoya Marimbas

I’ve been putting together a mix CD for a person that asked me to give them some classical music. Because I’m a music nerd, I’m putting together a listening guide as well with historical context, a little information on the composer, and some things to listen for. I don’t want it to be too technical, so I’m finding myself with extra insights that I’m going to channel here over the next few days.
Nagoya Marimbas was written in 1996, thirty years after Piano Phase (see my post on Piano Phase), but I see a direct connection between the two pieces.
Piano Phase was written to try and emulate with instruments a mechanical phenomenon: identical tape loops playing at different speeds and becoming out of sync. It accomplished this by having identical musical phrases played by two pianists at different speeds. It’s still phasing, but achieved by a different method. Once you become familiar with the way that phasing sounds and behaves, acoustical phenomena become apparent. These are the “events” you hear in Piano Phase–the way that the music behaves when the pianists sync up at a lag of the eighth note, or the sudden resolution when the pianists play note against note. There are also rhythmical patterns that emerge; depending on the content that’s being phased, individual tones become isolated and create their own identifiable rhythmic patterns that may not be contained in the phased material.
I think pieces like Music for 18 Musicians, Drumming, and Nagoya Marimbas representing Reich taking the experiment of phasing a step further. Works like Piano Phase and Violin Phase established the phenomena possible in phasing, which Reich isolated and manipulated in new works that left the phasing framework behind. If you listen closely to Nagoya Marimbas, events, moments occur that remind one of events in a phasing piece, however the means used to make the music is completely different in conception.
Another thing that I’ve been thinking about while writing about this piece of music is the prominent place that the marimba has taken in minimalist and contemporary classical music. I think this partly due to stylistic determinism (corresponding to linguistic determinism). Whereas earlier styles of instrumental music emphasized different values that lead to the strings, for example, occupying the primary place in an orchestra, the leaner, generally (in the early years) chamber-sized, rhythmically oriented minimalist music valued the marimba for its advantages: it’s tuned, has a moderate sustain, percussive, and can switch patterns more quickly than many instruments. It’s a reminder that the fortunes of instruments rise and fall with the times, and that instruments that aren’t considered particularly useful now may have unique qualities that may be valued in the music of the future.

4 responses to “Steve Reich – Nagoya Marimbas”

  1. I just downloaded a cd filled with Classical music. One of my favorite songs is Nagoya Marimbas. I is so beautiful and mysterious to me. I have no idea what the lyrics are and cant seem to find anything online. Do you have any suggestions? Do you know what this piece is about? Thanks!

        • Hey. Wasn’t giving the cold shoulder, just don’t check the site for comments every day. from what you’re describing, I think you’re probably looking for Samuel Barber’s Adagio For Strings. It was originally written for strings, but there are some choral versions out there, usually with the words of the Latin Mass “Agnus Dei.” Let me know if that helps.

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