Duet, a composition by Steve Reich, starts out almost exactly as you would expect from a minimalist piece with that title. The piece opens with two complementary violins; they play a repetitive series of notes that flows into something familiar. This doesn’t mean that Duet is derivative of other songs. Instead, its earliest measures feel firmly lodged within a layman’s understanding of classical violin. This could, for example, play over the first frames of a period drama and fit wonderfully.
If repetition in music is meant to lull the listener into a song, if it works as a meditative tool, Duet begins to pull in the opposite direction. The piece becomes compelling as the backing instruments become more audible. As they do, their music is slightly out of place with the lead violins. This isn’t immediately obvious. It starts subtly. Before the song is halfway over, though, the disconnect is more obvious. Duet surpasses the expectations laid down by those first moments when this builds.
The violins struggle – purposefully so – to escape the familiar sounds of the backing strings. There is a real give and take in this. At times, the violins completely break free. Quickly, though, their music is pulled back into alignment with the rest. In doing this, Reich seems to communicate the autonomy of the lead instruments. They are longing to play their own songs. Whether it fits the rest of the piece doesn’t matter to them. In this, the wordless music tells a fascinating story of conformity versus independence.
Reich titled the piece “Duet,” of course, which means there is another dynamic at play: the relationship between the lead violins. One of the violins is bolder than the other; while it forays into new styles and tones, the second acts as a hesitant link between its co-lead and the backing music. It reminds one of a male bird looking to woo a possible mate with vibrancy and strength. The rest of the flock watches, trying to lure them back into its ranks.
Reich’s decision to slowly build this conflict gives the listener time to uncover the story. The second half holds as many surprises. A series of melancholy tunes, played by the bolder of the two violins, arrives unexpectedly. This clash feels intentionally jarring, but it never falls into complete disarray for the listener.
This seems to Reich’s true genius, at least in this song. All of these elements trying to break away from one another, instruments trying to live in different songs, could add up to a flop. But there is always tissue connecting them. This is what comes to the forefront as the song nears its conclusion: the underlying unity. The disconnect first builds into a type of classical music free-for-all. This is the most compelling part of the piece. In its final seconds, though, its lead violins meet the rest of the strings. Because the journey has been so unexpected, this conformity is a satisfying resolution.
Duet should be applauded for many things. Its instrumentation jumps between alluring and treacherous. When its repetition starts to grate, the song changes its own course. The song juggles multiple emotions – or characters – in its five minutes. But most impressive here is the audacity of Steve Reich. Yes, the piece is minimalist. But it’s also deeply textured. It conveys a story with a clear structure, a risky blueprint that could have produced an unstable, misjudged product. Reich knows when to pull back, and in this wisdom finds the balance to support his story.