During a conversation earlier this week, Dr. Arthur M. Sackler, the eminent collector, was speculating on why he often finds himself reduced to tears by pieces of music but cannot recall ever having a similar reaction to a painting or a drawing -- the field in which he is so passionately involved.
"I think the difference is the beat, and its kinship to the beat of the heart," Sackler mused. "The person makes that association well before birth."
Well, the beat is not the only element of a piece of music. But I can think of no composer in whose works it has greater primacy than Steve Reich, three of whose works were played last night in an all-Reich concert at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Thus this music -- with the incessant, numbing drone of its cyclical figures, over and over, like the click of train wheels on a track -- presents a real test of such a theory of expressivity.
It was clear last night that the beat alone is not going to induce tears, though in even the purest form it certainly touches one's sensibility. That came in "Drumming, Part 1 (1971)," which began on two tuned drums with a single beat in a 12-beat cycle and grew to ever greater complications on the drums as the cycles developed.
It was not until the Washington premiere of Reich's widely heralded "The Desert Music" in a chamber version for chorus and orchestra that expressive potential of Reich's rigorous form of minimalism became apparent. It is really a question of matching the material to the method, and in this 50-minute setting of some austere lines from William Carlos Williams, the beat gets a true test. That throbbing method seems right for the grim ambivalence of these words. Also, Reich gives us more harmonic and timbral contrast here than in most of his works. "Desert Music" is too long, and perhaps there were no tears. But one was moved.