Steve Reich is one of the larger figures in Twentieth-century “New” (as in non-pop) music, and has done well because his works are tuneful, dreamy, and engaging. Sextet is my personal fave because, along with all those other things, it’s got loads of energy. It’s 25-ish minutes long; the five minutes of the last movement are the highlight and a really great introduction to Reich, if this is new territory to you.
Sextet is in five movements for six players, two pianos and percussion with lots of hocketing. It’s dreamy then flashy; I loved it the first time I heard it and still do.
I caught a Steve Reich tour sometime last century and it opened with a piece called Clapping Music, for two players clapping, one of them being Reich himself, a simple rhythm shifting slowly and entertainingly against itself. It was a nice way for a composer to welcome you to an evening of his music, and then I got the giggles, because when they stopped clapping the audience had to start clapping for the clapping. Anyhow, they played Sextet that same evening and it was a thrill to hear.
I mentioned “hocketing” above; that’s when two players play alternate notes of a musical phrase. Reich does it a lot and in Sextet it’s end-to-end.
My favorite recording of this is on Sextet / Six Marimbas from 1985. While I’m linking to the final movement for its flash and intensity, the earlier parts have a swoony, dreamy charm, produced in part by applying bows to vibraphones.
Links · Spotify playlist. Sextet’s last movement on Spotify, iTunes, Amazon. And here’s a fabulous live performance by the Yale Percussion Group, who play without music; I’m in awe. Watch the vibraphonists’ hammers and the pianists’ hands and see the hocketing.