PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

Steve Reich: Daniel Variations

The acclaimed minimalist composer’s concept piece inspired by slain journalist Daniel Pearl is just as baffling in execution as it is in theory.

Steve Reich

Daniel Variations

Label: Nonesuch
US Release Date: 2008-04-08
UK Release Date: 2008-04-07

In 2002, Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was kidnapped and eventually beheaded in Pakistan by an Islamic extremist group, enraged at the United States’ failure to meet their militant demands. Surely you remember following the shocking story in the news, or seeing the disturbing photographs: Pearl held captive, grimfaced in a multicolored jacket, handcuffed with a gun pointed at his head. He was once like any other bright thirty-something-year-old American, yet some of his final words (“My name is Daniel Pearl. I’m a Jewish American from Encino, California.”) have now been immortalized in Steve Reich’s fascinating, if not particularly coherent, new composition.

In many music circles, though his early experiments with tape loops are certainly respected, Steve Reich’s name is instantly associated with 1976’s Music for 18 Musicians, often regarded (correctly, I might add) as his masterwork, an utterly gorgeous, trance-inducing exploration of chord cycles and drones. I was only half-joking when I included the recording in a list of “albums not to listen to while driving” alongside The Flaming Lips’ Zaireeka and Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music; it’s labeled a seminal example of the minimalism movement, yet there’s nothing minimal about its hypnotic tendency to simply envelope the listener in pure sound. The influence of Music for 18 Musicians is evident in the numerous renditions on YouTube, or the fact that, while iTunes classifies the work as “classical”, it is often found – and allow me to stereotype here – in the record collections and mp3 players of indie listeners who can’t tell Beethoven from Baroque. This mass appeal can likely be attributed to the fact that, although the piece is of a complex musical nature (endlessly pulsing melodic repetition cycling through eleven chords), it’s also readily accessible to those who wish to ignore any analysis and simply enjoy the sublime piece. By contrast, Reich’s newest lacks this necessary accessibility that first made Reich a household name.

Like much of Steve Reich’s newer work, Daniel Variations is a far cry from the recordings that brought him to fame. For one thing, Reich continues to incorporate choral elements into his music, as he did with You Are in 2006. And like Tehillim & The Desert Music a few years prior, Reich once again involves religious, biblical overtones and elements of his Jewish faith. Commissioned by Daniel Pearl’s father as part of the Pearl Foundation, Daniel Variations features tenor and soprano voices either harmonizing or clashing (depending on your tastes) atop string motifs, clarinets, vibraphones, and endless pounding on four pianos. The piece is presented in four movements: two take their titles from Pearl’s own words – for example, “My Name is Daniel Pearl” is described by Reich as “so emblematic of this remarkable person”, since “names are indicative of character” in Judaism. The others are biblical references from The Book of Daniel. The composer was kind enough to explain his inspiration in the liner notes, yet fails to adequately explain the purpose behind it, resulting in a rather unsatisfying album on every level.

Reich employs a unique method of vocal writing in which the choir repeats the title words in unpredictable cycles, with little emphasis on the actual sentence structure. Problem is, Reich’s vocal writing ranges from awkwardly tuneless (the opening “I Saw A Dream”) to dissonant staccato repetition (“Let the Dream Fall Back on the Dreaded”). But in typical Reich fashion, nothing is random, and the musical structure of the piece is outlined just as faithfully, straight from the source. In Reich’s words: “Daniel Variations has two related harmonic ground plans – one for the first and third movements using four minor dominant chords a minor third apart in E minor, G minor, B-flat minor, and C-sharp minor. The other harmonic plan is for the second and fourth movements using four major dominant chords in the relative major keys, G, B-flat, D-flat, and E.” Whereas Music for 18 Musicians has been embraced by listeners of all musical backgrounds (or lack thereof), Daniel Variations, in all its jarring transitions and complications, seems more suitable to analysis in a music theory class than casual listening. And this is tragic. It’s clearly calculated and unique, but can any enjoyment be derived from it?

But wait, there’s more: the CD release of Daniel Variations also includes a separate 2005 Reich composition, Variations For Vibes, Pianos & Strings. The composition was intended for use by choreographer Akram Khan, with an emphasis on swift, interlocking string patterns. In the liner notes, Reich describes an “accumulation of more melodic and harmonic material as [the variations] move along,” but the repetition is more grating than hypnotic, and in no way comparable to Reich’s memorable vibraphone buildup in Sextet over 20 years ago. In fact, Reich’s description of this piece is honestly more interesting than the piece itself, which, to an untrained ear, could be mistaken for Daniel Variations without vocals.

So, in short, Daniel Variations can be recommended in good conscience to diehard Reich fans only. On the bright side, though, if you actually managed to read the above descriptions, you’re likely one of them. As a new generation of listeners discovers the influence and brilliance of Reich’s classic works, it’s only natural for him to remain a restless creative force into the 21st century; however, it’s disheartening that, other than serving as an ambitious testament to the late Pearl, Daniel Variations merely succeeds in further distancing Reich from the aforementioned casual fans and admirers.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Peter Frampton Asks "Do You Feel Like I Do?" in Rock-Solid Book on Storied Career

British rocker Peter Frampton grew up fast before reaching meteoric heights with Frampton Comes Alive! Now the 70-year-old Grammy-winning artist facing a degenerative muscle condition looks back on his life in his new memoir and this revealing interview.


Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.


Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.


Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.


In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.


The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.


The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.


The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.


When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.


20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.


The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.


Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.


Kimm Rogers' "Lie" Is an Unapologetically Political Tune (premiere)

San Diego's Kimm Rogers taps into frustration with truth-masking on "Lie". "What I found most frustrating was that no one would utter the word 'lie'."


50 Years Ago B.B. King's 'Indianola Mississippi Seeds' Retooled R&B

B.B. King's passion for bringing the blues to a wider audience is in full flower on the landmark album, Indianola Mississippi Seeds.


Filmmaker Marlon Riggs Knew That Silence = Death

In turning the camera on himself, even in his most vulnerable moments as a sick and dying man, filmmaker and activist Marlon Riggs demonstrated the futility of divorcing the personal from the political. These films are available now on OVID TV.


The Human Animal in Natural Labitat: A Brief Study of the Outcast

The secluded island trope in films such as Cast Away and television shows such as Lost gives culture a chance to examine and explain the human animal in pristine, lab like, habitat conditions. Here is what we discover about Homo sapiens.


Bad Wires Release a Monster of a Debut with 'Politics of Attraction'

Power trio Bad Wires' debut Politics of Attraction is a mix of punk attitude, 1990s New York City noise, and more than a dollop of metal.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.