Early Works is a collection of various mould-breaking recordings Steve Reich produced before truly igniting his star with the trademark instrumental minimalism he continues to perfect today. They are as essential to current minimalism as blues itself was to the invention of rock ‘n’ roll.
Groundbreaking in every sense of the word. Half of the record consists of musique concrete-style tape loop experiments: Come Out and It’s Gonna Rain – respectively based on vocal samples about police brutality and apocalyptic evangalicalism. On Come Out, words are presented at first unvarnished, sounding straight from a tape recorder. “I had to, like open the bruise up, and let some of the bruise blood come out to show them-” states a youthful voice, halting and immediate. A few repetitions in it begins to split, speeding up in one channel and slowing to an uneasy cadence in the other. Eventually the dissonance created between the two is combined into a single raucious, nearly beat-driven refrain of “come out / to show them” as two sides of an aural samurai sword swinging to obliterate the mind’s preconceptions of the human voice. Deconstructing so fully through looping, splicing, and speed, the listener forced to confront the individual phenotypes of speech itself, the malleable nature of words and voice. A backing beat appear to solidify, but it’s only a byproduct of this snippet of dialogue sifting its way toward a nearly sublime (though always unnerving) rhythm. The second, It’s Gonna Rain, starts off with prophetic booming preacher assertions, including the titular phrase, which devolves through the same techniques into a cacophany of beats and noise, before developing in the song’s second half into an absolute maelstrom of unrecognizable shouting in tongues. Except the tongue-speak is fed through a kaleidoscopic blender where only the faintest remnants of whole syllables are detectable. It’s a disorienting, slightly terrifying, ultimately satisfying journey into the unknown.
The other half of the record hews much closer to the later phase driven work Reich is most known for. Piano Phase, written just one year after the tape works, showed his genius for the sublime instrumental passages in full bloom and ready for the major leagues. It’s a piece still played by ensembles when performing selections from his vast body of work, and for good reason. The same ecstasy-wracked trance effects evident in this 20 minute blissout echo today throughout everything subsequently written by the man. Simply put, there would be no Music for 18 Musicians, Drumming, Octet, Different Trains/Electric Counterpoint or City Life without this definitive, seed planting piece. The juggernaut is followed by a short song aptly titled Clapping Music. If you’ve followed along at all by this point, what’s in store should be obvious. It’s fantastic.