Measure by Measure

Organ Grinding

When the audience revolted at Carnegie Hall

By Sudip Bose | March 29, 2018
Steve Reich setting up for a performance (via Steve Reich)
Steve Reich setting up for a performance (via Steve Reich)

Over the years, I have come to love certain pieces of music that held little appeal for me when I was young. Some of the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s works, for example, which I used to find bland, even unimaginative, now seem like visionary essays. Elliott Carter’s music, beginning with the String Quartet No. 1, had once sounded to me like impenetrable fields of noise. Now I’m attracted to Carter’s elegance and humor, and I have learned to pick out distinct voices and follow the various lines in a particularly dense and complex passage. We mature, our tastes change, and indeed, there are composers I once revered whom I barely listen to anymore: Max Bruch, Henryk Wieniawski, Sergei Rachmaninov, and Nicolò Paganini, to name just a few.

When I was an undergraduate, playing the violin in a contemporary music ensemble, I was surrounded by graduate-student composers who revered—to an unhealthy degree, it seemed to me—one of the seminal composers of the minimalist movement, Steve Reich. I admit: I tried to get into Reich, but barely a few minutes of Pendulum Music or Drumming would elapse before I found myself wondering what all the fuss was about. When people I admire evangelize on behalf of works of art that mystify me, my instinct is to question my judgment. But I had little inclination to persist with Reich until I recently came across the story of one infamous performance of his music—the 1973 Carnegie Hall concert featuring Four Organs, an event to rival the riotous premiere of The Rite of Spring and the equally volatile Skandalkonzert in 1913 Vienna.

Back when Michael Tilson Thomas was the associate conductor of the Boston Symphony, he heard one of Reich’s pieces at a party. An ardent advocate for contemporary music, Tilson Thomas subsequently asked Reich for an orchestral piece. The composer, however, hadn’t yet made the switch to live instruments—the work that Tilson Thomas had heard was for tape—so instead he submitted Four Organs, a piece for four electric organs and maracas, not exactly typical fare for an orchestral concert.

The premiere took place in May 1970 at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, and the reception was largely positive. Further performances elicited mixed responses: excitement at best, a kind of tolerant apathy at worst. In an interview he gave two years ago, Tilson Thomas recalled that in Boston, the piece “kind of went over. People were a little bit perplexed, but it went over. Then, we took it to Carnegie Hall …”

The Boston Symphony’s relatively new Spectrum series was meant to offer more challenging programs than the usual combination of overture-concerto-symphony. For the Carnegie Hall Spectrum concert of January 18, 1973, Tilson Thomas programmed Four Organs along with Johann Christian Bach’s Symphony for Double Orchestra in E flat, Bela Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, and Franz Liszt’s Hexameron for Six Pianos and Orchestra. To say that Four Organs did not go over well, in front of the generally conservative audience that attended Boston Symphony concerts in New York, would be a glorious understatement. As Tilson Thomas said, the crowd was “expecting this elegant, gorgeously upholstered traditional music. Instead they got this piece for amplified … rock organs.”

Four Organs begins with a pattern of eighth notes played by the maracas—a steady, unyielding rattling that’s sustained for the duration of the piece. When the organs come in, they too play repeated figures of eighth notes, and although Reich manipulates both the lengths of the notes (augmenting them steadily) and the notes themselves (which, taken together, make up a dominant eleventh chord), the piece can sound repetitive at first, monotonous, bewildering. That night, it didn’t take long for some rather prominent coughing to break out, before the crowd let loose with less subtle forms of protest: boos and catcalls, the agitation growing over the course of the piece’s 15-plus minutes. At one point, an older woman approached the stage, took off a shoe, and banged it on the stage, imploring the ensemble—which included Reich and Tilson Thomas—to stop. Someone else sprinted down an aisle, yelling, “All right! I confess!” Other aggrieved patrons simply left. With the commotion escalating, the musicians could barely hear each other play, forcing Tilson Thomas to call out the beats over the noise. This was no easy task. Consider the note of instruction that Reich included in the score of Four Organs:

The meter of bars 1 through to 17 is eleven eighth notes grouped 3 plus 8. The meter of bars 18 through to 21 is eleven eighth notes divided 4 plus 4 plus 3, and the meter of bar 22 is 4 plus 3 plus 4. Starting at bar 23 the number of eighth notes per bar begins to increase, and continues to increase in every bar all the way to bar 42 which is 265 eighth notes long. To facilitate counting longer and longer durations, the number of eighth notes in each sub-group within each bar is written numerically in the center of each organ part. To keep accurate count all organists must obviously be able to hear the maracas clearly.

The musicians continued on, and after it was all over, the audience exploded—with plenty of bravos to counter the detractors’ boos. When the musicians walked off the stage, Reich was, as he remembered it, “as white as a sheet.” Yet Tilson Thomas was practically gleeful: “I said, ‘Steve, this is the greatest thing that’s happened. Nothing like this has happened since the premiere of The Rite of Spring. For sure, by tomorrow, everyone in the world is going to know about you and your music.’ And that’s just what happened.”

Critical response was mixed, with Harold C. Schonberg of The New York Times sounding the most scathing note. Listening to Four Organs, he wrote, was like having “red-hot needles inserted under fingernails.” “At least,” he added, “there was some excitement in the concert hall, which is more than can be said when most avant-garde music is being played.” In a subsequent article in the Times, Schonberg continued to attack Reich:

The music is indeed a bore. There is no “content” in this kind of music; it is pure sound, and there is nothing to ‘understand’ in it.

What Reich has done is confuse an acoustic phenomenon with music. As such, “Four Organs” is non-music, just as so many minor baroque compositions, written in tonic-dominant formulae without a trace of personality, are non-music. Or as so much modern art is non-art—three white triangles against a white background, or something like that. But it fools a lot of people because all of this is a phenomenon that comes under the general heading of “art.” Really it is “art” for people who are afraid of “art.” Or do not understand what art really is. Or who are too emotionally inhibited to want to share the emotional and intellectual processes of a real creator’s mind. “Four Organs” is baby stuff, written by an innocent for innocents. 

Having spent some time with Four Organs of late—eager to hear what it was that turned so many people off—I think this assessment is utterly unfair. Sound is, to be sure, an important quality of this music, but it isn’t sound for sound’s sake—and the one thing you cannot do here is listen passively, sitting back and letting those sounds wash over you. You almost have to lean forward as you hear the piece, paying close attention to all the ways the notes are altered and controlled. As the eighth notes are augmented, the textures grow thicker, the chords are held longer, and the sense of time seems to elongate. Part of the interest for me comes from appreciating how Reich plays with expectation and fulfillment. If you listen to the same notes, arranged in the same patterns, for a little while, any subtle change to the pattern can both disorient and liberate the ear. It’s a bit like those visual field tests at the ophthalmologist’s office. Your eyes are trained on a surface upon which a series of lights appear; at first, the lights are fairly localized in the center, but eventually they start flickering on the peripheries—you’re not sure if you’re seeing them or not, but the result is a steady expansion of your perception. In Four Organs, a stray eighth note on an offbeat becomes that flickering light. Let yourself surrender to the laws of Reich’s universe, and your awareness of rhythm and meter, consonance and dissonance, tension and release begins to alter. The music doesn’t sound monotonous at all. To the contrary, it teems with unexpected life. Four Organs seems to me an experiment in disintegration and synthesis, and toward the end, when the notes have lengthened into wonderful edifices of sound, the final resolution of the cadence sounds like nothing less than a great Amen.

I’m still not sure if I really like this piece, but I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit, often at inconvenient times—for example, when I’m trying to fall asleep and shut my brain down. It’s an object lesson in persistence: not to give up on a piece of music or composer, one’s first, second, or third impressions be damned.

Listen to this 1970 recording of Steve Reich’s Four Organs, played here by Michael Tilson Thomas, Steve Reich, Ralph Grerson, and Roger Kellaway on keyboards and Tom Raney on maracas:

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