Steve Reich has a remarkable arrangement for a composer in that he is an exclusive artist for Nonesuch and has been so for more than two decades. Back in 1996, when Reich celebrated his 60th birthday, Nonesuch issued a 10-CD box set of "everything" – all of the works in the Warner Classics vaults that he had recorded, including some new at the time, such as Steve Reich: Works 1965-1995. With Reich's 70th birthday afoot, the earlier set still in print and Nonesuch belonging to a classical music division that is operating on one lung, it has decided on a more modest approach to the newer observance with Steve Reich: Phases – A Nonesuch Retrospective, a collection consisting of five discs.
This late-'80s work finds the minimalist composer mixing acoustic and taped material to great effect. The disc's centerpiece is "Different Trains," a work that frames Reich's impressions of his boyhood train trips between his mother in Los Angeles and his father in New York; Reich also intersperses references to the much more harrowing train rides Jews were forced to take to Nazi concentration camps. Using the fine playing of the Kronos Quartet as a base, Reich layers the work with the taped train musings of his governess, a retired Pullman porter, and various Holocaust survivors – vintage train sounds from the '30s and '40s add to the riveting arrangement. And for some nice contrast, Reich recruits guitarist Pat Metheny to create a similarly momentous piece in "Electric Counterpoint" (Metheny plays live over a multi-tracked tape of ten guitars and two electric basses). Two fine works by Reich in his prime.