"The mind is listening," sings the chorus near the end of Steve Reich’s 1983 recording The Desert Music, a cantata that sets passages from three poems by William Carlos Williams to music. Reich first encountered Williams’s work when he was sixteen, having been initially attracted by the symmetry of the poet's name, and has long been influence by his poems, especially his later books The Desert Music and Journey to Love. As a young composer, Reich attempted to set Williams to music but was unable to find a suitable form. He set aside the idea until much later in his career, when his work with Hebrew psalms in Tehellim revealed possible avenues for setting the poems to music.
The opportunity to set the poet's work to music came when West German Radio and the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York commissioned him to write The Desert Music. For the first time in his career, Reich was asked to write a piece that would operate on a grand scale, employing a full orchestra and chorus. When Reich turned to Williams’s poems, he found that they had been churning in his mind all those years.
Reich has always been interested in the intersection between art and politics, and the forty-six-minute The Desert Music is no exception. Largely concerned with the issue of nuclear warfare—which Reich sees as a concern in Williams’s poems of that time—the composition takes place in a sort of desert of the mind, which, as Reich said, "threatens one’s normal thinking." Reich draws the connection between this metaphoric desert and the White Sands National Monument and Alamagordo areas of New Mexico, the infamous location of early nuclear testing.
The Desert Music reflects the qualities of Williams's lines through an intricate composition of harmonic density and overlapping asymmetries, and shifts from despair to clarity. Each movement features lines Reich chose for an amplified chorus. The first and last movements, which move quickly, use lines from the poems "Theocritus: Idyl I" and "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower," respectively. The second and fourth movements slow to a moderate tempo and repeat twelve lines excerpted from "The Orchestra." The middle movement, which, at seventeen minutes, is the longest, is divided into three sub-movements; the first and last are slow, while the middle section is similar to the moderate tempo of the second and fourth movements. The text for all three also comes from "The Orchestra."
The effect of all five movements is a unified pastiche that demands the full attention of the listener. There are no pauses between movements, so the sudden shifts from one to the next, coupled with the layered, amplified choral notes, creates, in Reich’s words, "a constant flickering of attention between what words mean and how they sound when set to music." This ambiguity is a central focus of The Desert Music.
Williams's work is preoccupied with modes of attentiveness and ways of listening. Though best known for having written the line "no ideas but in things," and for his poem of, at first glance, pure image, "The Red Wheelbarrow," Williams was a poet of great sensitivity, acutely aware that the world beyond the poem can present greater complexities than the poem possibly can. As he wrote in "The Orchestra": "The / theme is difficult / but no more difficult / than the facts to be / resolved."
The Grammy-winning Reich is considered one of the greatest living American composers. His study and integration of Western classical music with non-Western and American vernacular music, such as jazz, lend an unexpected dimension to his work, a dimension evident in this remarkable collaboration.