One of the most interesting things Steve Reich says in this interview (which I mentioned a couple of weeks ago) is that the reason he formed his own band is that he grew tired of composers making excuses for poor representations of their work -- "well, there wasn't enough rehearsal, the violinist couldn't make it this day, the conductor didn't really care for it." He also talks about an "ethical and moral" contrast between composers writing incredibly complex music that they couldn't perform and likely didn't hear in their heads, versus someone like John Coltrane, who presented his own music with his own groups. Reich took Coltrane as his model, and for a long time the only performances of Steve Reich's music was by groups led by Steve Reich. (This branch of the conversation starts around the 26:25 mark, if you want to check it out.)
In addition to the ethical and moral considerations, there are practical ones -- at the time Reich first started presenting his music, few classically trained players were capable of dealing with its demands. It's not that the music is flashy and virtuosic -- just the opposite. But it requires (and I'm sorry to keep harping on this, but it's important) rhythmic authority. Rhythmic authority isn't just the ability to play rhythms precisely, although unfortunately, many classical players aren't even equipped for that. Reich's music is only playable if everyone has a rock-solid internal click track going, as well as the ability to both lock in with the ensemble and -- when necessary -- slip off the grid while still maintaining rigorous control over your own tempo. And that's just to get through the music on a basic level. For the pieces to come alive, for the music to draw the listeners in instead of just sitting there, flat and sterile, you need to have an emotional connection to rhythm. You need to understand viscerally, in your gut, what a short note on the "and" of one means, and how it's different from the same note in a different part of the bar. You need to have an intuitive sense of how tiny differences in emphasis and placement can drastically affect the character of a syncopated or repeated figure. In other words, you've got to know how to groove.
The formal and conceptual rigor of Steve Reich's compositions made groove music intellectually respectable in classical music circles, but it's the rhythmic authority of his band's own performances that made the case for his music so compelling, and served as the model for other musicians to attempt his works. Once Reich became established and canonized, his music's demands become part of the skillset that today's conservatory-trained students are expected to master. Many of the young musicians featured on Sunday's hit literally grew up listening to recordings by Steve Reich and Musicians. The concert -- billed as "Reich Legacy" -- was not just a celebration of Reich's music, but a testament to his influence on modern performance practice.
The youngest band on the bill was TACTUS, the Manhattan School of Music Contemporary Ensemble. They played 1983's Eight Lines, for flutes, clarinets, strings, and piano. It's a vivid, sparkling work, one I suspect Michael Nyman has listened to many times. The piano is the engine of this piece, with the other instruments often catching scattered accents, or playing lush long chords underneath. (The pianist, David Hanlon, deserves special praise for keeping the groove going through what is probably the most demanding piano part Reich has ever written.) The work is in five parts but, as is typical for Reich, the transitions are subtle and often only evident when you check the rearview mirror after you've already passed them -- with the exception of one exhilarating slam down into a new mode. It's also -- as far as I am aware -- the only Reich piece that's actually in 5/4 all the way through.
Another work from the early 1980's, Vermont Counterpoint, is a piece for flute and prerecorded tape originally commissioned by Ransom Wilson, and it was great to have the work's originator on hand to perform it. The tape part is an overdubbed flute choir -- three piccolos, three flutes, and three alto flutes, plus a recorded solo part, all pitted against Wilson's live playing. I loved the way he varied his tone, attack, and amount of breathiness throughout the piece. The live part also calls for the player to switch-hit on piccolo, flute and alto flute, and Wilson brought a distinct individual personality to each instrument.
The sequel to this work is the better-known New York Counterpoint, originally written for clarinetist Richard Stoltzman, but presented here in an arrangement by Susan Fancher for sax quartet and prerecorded tape. The adaptation is a natural -- what's more New York than sax? -- but, at least in this version, I felt it promised more than it delivered. The PRISM sax quartet played with a pristine "classical" sound (and if there's anything more reviled than rock sax, it's classical sax) that seemed more appropriate for Ravel than Reich, especially with all those jazz-inflected figures. The PRISM guys never seemed to relax into the syncopations enough to play them with attitude and authority, and one of the consequences of this was that they kept rushing the repeated offbeats. There were some genuinely pretty moments in the slow middle movement, but the group's playing was so politely bland, the piece sounded more like "Ottawa Counterpoint."
The gig also included one pure tape piece from Reich's early conceptual days, 1965's It's Gonna Rain, featuring a loop of a San Fransisco street preacher warning of the coming apocalyptic flood. This is how Reich first discovered the phasing technique -- not with instruments, but with two tape players running at slightly different speeds, gradually going out of phase with one another. The fiery words gradually become smeared and blurred, devolving first into their component phonemes, and eventually breaking down entirely into a series of raw, abrasive, inhuman sounds. What saves the piece from being a mere sonic exercise is the emotional content underlying the preacher's words, which continue to resonate long after it becomes impossible to distinguish them at all. The piece is in two parts, and the time-lapse disintegration of the second half elicits a viscerally chilling end-of-the-world sensation.
Pendulum Music, another '60s conceptual work, was actually premiered at the Whitney as part of an installation by Richard Serra and others. Four microphones are suspended by their cables above four speakers. The four "performers" draw the mics back and release them simultaneously, allowing them to swing back and forth over a loudspeaker, which generates a little hum of feedback at the bottom of the arc. The hums start more or less in unison and gradually go out of phase as the swinging mics gradually come to rest. Now, I understand the appeal of presenting a work that has a direct connection to the venue, but I'll bet Pendulum Music was a lot more interesting in its original context. As part of this concert, all it did was take up a large area of floorspace that might have been better used to add extra seating for the hundreds of frustrated would-be listeners who were turned away from the Whit's packed third floor gallery.
So Percussion were the workhorses of the afternoon, performing many of Reich's best-known works -- Marimba Phase, Six Marimbas, Four Organs, Clapping Music, and (in a joint performance with Alarm Will Sound) the epic Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices, and Organ. They also had a CD release gig the night before at Symphony Space, and I have to wonder if they were overextended. The guys are all first-rate players, and I've always enjoyed their work in the past, but I wasn't the only one to notice the wrong notes in Marimba Phase. (It's hard not to notice in a piece like that.) Another big disappointment was Four Organs -- in Reich's words, "the piece is played on four screaming rock-and-roll organs, so the timbre is like talons scratching your ears." But instead of a quartet of gritty Farfisas, we had MIDI controllers triggering a digitally sampled organ. The piece just flat out does not work without the subtle differences and imperfections and dirty analog wail of the vintage organs. Also, it was hard to tell if the many rhythmic gaffes were due to latency issues with the sampler, or sloppy playing by the group -- but either way, So Perc. came perilously close to flying off the rails here, escaping that fate only by the skin of the maraca player's teeth.
Their other performances were significantly better, especially Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices, and Organ. Perhaps the fact that this was a collaboration with Alarm Will Sound meant that it got more rehearsal time, but this piece came off very well. I love the vast spread of mallet percussion, from the woody depths of the grand marimba to the shiny flashes of glock at the top, combined with the subtle humanizing effect of the voices and the organ's trancelike droning. (Again, though, I would have preferred a real Farfisa to the DX-7... ). The arc of this piece is so satisfying and the transitions between the four key areas are so elegant and subtle -- I can never decide whether this piece or 18 Instruments is my favorite Reich.
Six Marimbas -- which, like Marimba Phase, is adapted from a the original piano version -- was another highlight. So Percussion acquitted themselves much better here, and despite some occasional clams, the groove was never less than rock-solid -- it's clear they get Reich's rhythms on a visceral level. Clapping Music, which closed the concert, was delivered with enthusiasm and attitude (although nothing can really match this version).
In addition to their joint effort on Mallet Instruments, Voices, and Organ, Alarm Will Sound contributed a version of Proverb, the most recent (1995) Reich work on the menu. The aphorism in question comes from Reich's study of Ludwig Wittgenstein's works (he was a philosophy major at Cornell), a quote pulled from Culture and Value: "How small a thought it takes to fill a life." It's an unusually lush work, with rich minor-key vocal harmonies, doubled throughout by synth organs. The only rhythmic interest comes from the vibraphones, which describe constantly shifting patterns underneath the voices. The AWS Singers -- Courtney Orlando, Magdalen Kadel, Martha Cluver, Caleb Burhans, and Michael Harley -- all performed admirably, but I found the work a bit sleepy, to be honest. Then again, lots of people seem to think it's Reich's best recent composition. I guess it depends on your affinity for elegiac choral works -- I have limited patience for that stuff at the best of times, let alone in the final hour of a four-hour gig.
Alarm Will Sound also performed the two non-Reich pieces on the program -- Bang on a Can founder Michael Gordon's Yo Shakespeare and AWS violinist Caleb Burhans's Amidst Neptune. Yo Shakespeare is considered Michael Gordon's breakthrough piece, part of the Totalist/Metametric canon. As Kyle Gann says, the piece is stripped down to almost pure rhythm -- in fact, with the sound often dominated by overdriven electric guitar and 80's keyboards, it sounds like math rock without the drums. It's tricky as hell, full of incomplete tuplets and impossibly complex nested polyrhythms. Often you hear what sounds like three independent tempos going on at once, but once the initial shock wears off, you begin to feel the underlying common pulse. This is a piece that could easily come off as a dry proof of concept, but the music quickly steamrolls right over any such objections. It was especially thrilling to hear Alarm Will Sound nail it with such confidence -- too often in this kind of work, you can actually hear the anxiety in the air as the players stress the rhythms, but AWS had a swaggeringly confident collective full-body groove going on.
"Yo Shakespeare" is the natural choice to represent the second generation of Reich-inspired composers -- the Downtown crowd who expanded on the rhythmic possibilities of minimalist techniques by pitting irrational polyrhythms against a regular grid, and often bringing in loud guitars and a rocklike attitude. The work is dedicated to Reich, and Steve even has a personal connection to the piece, as M.G. relates:
When I showed the piece to Steve Reich, he got really excited, and he said, "The first thing you've got to do in this score is, on the front page, you've got to say, "This is the rhythm. Because if people look at this score, they're going to think you're an idiot. But if you actually tell them on the front page that you know you're an idiot, then they'll take you seriously." And that's what I did. When I made the score on the very first page I put, "Here's how you play the rhythm," and I gave them three options. And now people can figure it out and they get into it and they go, "Oh yeah, it looked really weird, but I realized I can play this."
The third generation of the Reich legacy was represented on the gig by Caleb Burhans's Amidst Neptune. It was attractively orchestrated and made good use of electric bass, drum kit, and wordless vocals woven into the ensemble. The second half of the piece is dominated by a Radiohead-ish 3/4 piano ostinato, alternating between pairs of chords. There were many nice individual moments, especially the most obviously Reich-inspired figure: the introduction of 4:3 pulses against the 3/4 piano part. But I found that most of the really exciting gestures were discarded far too quickly after their introduction. My other concern is that most of the piece was locked into predictable, foursquare phrasing, which prevented it from building up any momentum. The exciting thing about Reich's work is the unpredictable rate of change -- you never know quite when a figure is going to shift slightly, or when a long-foreshadowed transition is finally going to hit. I wanted more of that unpredictability to manifest itself in Burhans's piece. Caleb is a skilled and uninhibited improviser, so I was surprised that Amidst Neptune felt so regular and boxed-in.
Despite my misgivings about some of the performances, it was still deeply, deeply satisfying to immerse myself in Steve Reich's music for so long -- the gig lasted nearly four hours, and the two intermissions were cruelly short. But the works presented are so rewarding, and so directly relevant to anyone grappling with what Steve's legacy means to their own music-making, that for most of the concert, the passing of time seemed more illusory than ever.
Tickets to this event were provided by Alarm Will Sound.
Illicitly taken pics below the fold...