When Phase to Face begins, you see a few pieces of furniture surrounded by some random graphic design that gradually falls away. As this visual plays out, you hear Steve Reich being interrupted by a telephone call from NPR informing him that he had just won the Pulitzer Prize for his composition “Double Sextet”. Reich is happy, a tad speechless, and then takes his seat on the couch to resume his chat with the film crew that is making this documentary. And you never hear another word about “Double Sextet” again.
And so it goes with Phase to Face, a reverent but skimpy glimpse into one of America’s most defining composers of the late 20th century (and judging by his recent accolades, the early 21st as well). This film is heavy on interview footage with the main subject and light on rehearsal and performance footage. Archival footage is nil and you never get a grip on what it’s like to see Reich “in action.” It’s only 52-minutes long, so before you know it, it’s over.
Phase to Face contains excerpts from “It’s Gonna Rain”, “Piano Phase”, “Pendulum”, “Clapping Music”, “Music for Pieces of Wood”, “Music for 18 Musicians”, “Tehillim”, “Sextet”, “Different Trains”, “The Cave”, “Proverb”, and “2 X 5”. None of these pieces are shown in their entirety, and all come from present day footage. I was hoping to see some film rolled off from minimalism’s early days. A majority of them don’t even receive a proper introduction aside from some text displayed during rehearsals giving you the piece’s name and the year in which it was composed.
When one of these compositions is discussed at length, you learn some interesting things. For instance, the phase work of 1965’s “It’s Gonna Rain” came about purely by accident. Reich hit the play button on two different tape machines simultaneously and the curiously nuanced synching magic unfolded all by itself. But when it comes to “Different Trains”, the context is lacking. Reich’s story behind the work is engaging; when drawing upon the memories of his childhood cross-country trips by train, he imagined a young boy at the same time in Europe who would have been riding a train to a concentration camp. Powerful stuff for sure, but the finer aspects of “Different Trains” are never discussed. At one point he talks about “why [the piece] works.” Well, in order to talk about “why”, you also should also talk about the “how”. If that was ever touched upon during their conversation, the filmmakers left it out.
An interesting angle derived from Phase to Face is just how respectful Reich is of the old guard. The guy obviously loves Bach, and goes out of his way to mention that fact several times (especially if you select the bonus footage “A Brief History of Music by Steve Reich”). His recounting of western music’s evolution into the atonal and 12-tone almost carries a hint of worry in his voice, thinking that the harmonic virtues of the old masters could be lost for good. And supposedly, in mid-20th century New York, everyone would laugh at your tonal music. So it can be disorienting to think of the author of “Come Out” as being so concerned with the preservation of Bach’s forms, Debussy’s harmonies and ancient Hebrew texts.
Somewhere along the line, Reich was able to compromise it all in his head. You don’t win a Pulitzer Prize in your early 70s by playing Ping-Pong with yourself over a lifetime, but getting to that point couldn’t have been without its dilemmas, either. This film needed additional historical footage, interviews from people other than the main subject, and proper exposure to the works that elevated Reich to the level of an icon. Hopefully the next person to make a documentary about Steve Reich won’t have to grapple with a 52-minute running time limit.