Signal Ensemble is the latest and largest assemblage of youngish NYC new music all-stars, a team-up band featuring the entirety of So Percussion alongside players from Alarm Will Sound, Gutbucket, and various other avant-classical groups -- basically a kind of Legion of Superheroes for the Bang on a Can crowd. Signal in fact made their official debut at this year's Bang On A Can Marathon, and last Saturday was their first NYC solo show, in the new home for the Wordless Music series, Le Poisson Rouge. In case you are keeping track, this is a major new American chamber orchestra whose initial New York appearances have taken place in a shopping center and a nightclub.
Signal are, so far, heavily invested in performing the music of Steve Reich -- they did his "Daniel" Variations at the Marathon, a whole mess of Reich rep out west at the Ojai Festival, and on Saturday and Sunday at LPR, they paired a recent piece, You Are (Variations), with the work pretty much everyone considers to be Reich's masterpiece, 1976's Music for 18 Musicians. Chances are that if you know only one piece of classical music written by a living American composer, this is the one you know.
I would hazard a guess that most of the musicians in Signal grew up listening to Music for 18 Musicians in pretty heavy rotation. Some of them would probably not even be classical musicians today had they not encountered that piece during their formative years. But the thing about Music for 18 is, it requires a completely different skill set than the the one music most classical musicians train so very hard to develop. There's no conductor, for starters, which is unusual for a piece with this many players involved, and especially for one that requires such intricate rhythmic coordination. There are a ton of open-ended repeats, so it's on the players to decide when it's time to cue the next section. There are phrases whose length depends on how long the musicians can sustain a single breath. But the thing that makes Music for 18 unlike the overwhelming majority of the classical music that came before it is that the overall aesthetic effect depends almost entirely on the musicians' understanding of and command over the emotional consequences of nuanced rhythmic placement in relationship to a steady pulse. Another way of saying the same thing is that the players need to know how to groove for the piece to sound good.
The parts in Music for 18 are written in such a way that everyone in the group is required to take personal responsibility for the time. Not just for their own internal time feel -- which has to be unyieldingly solid and precise, but also relaxed, unforced -- but also, their ears have to be open to the aggregate of everyone else's time feel. The players need to stay constantly focused and engaged in what is effectively an hour-long conversation amongst themselves about where the time currently is and where it ought to be.
[Think of it like this: imagine a group of 18 people standing in a circle, each holding a magnet. There's a small iron sphere in the middle of the circle, maybe a little smaller than a golf ball. If all of the magnets are positioned just right, then the combination of those 18 magnetic fields is sufficient to lift the iron ball up off the ground and keep it hovering there in midair. That is what you are trying to do. Robots could do this; they could be programmed to first move the magnets in just the right way to raise the ball, and then to keep it aloft and stable by holding each magnet perfectly steady in the perfect position relative to the ball and to the other magnets. Humans being humans, though, keeping the iron ball floating and centered requires both intricate communication and constant tiny adjustments -- you see the ball twitch in one direction, so you move your magnet ever-so-slightly to compensate... and then someone else is forced to compensate for the way you just moved your magnet by adjusting their magnet, and so on. If anyone moves too far or too fast, or too slow or not fast enough, or simply loses their concentration, then the delicate equilibrium will be broken and the iron ball will go flying off, or clattering to the floor, and it's all over.]
Anyway, sustaining an ongoing conversation about the time isn't something that most classical musicians are even aware they might need to do at some point -- especially not in the context of maintaining a collectively locked-in, stable, trancelike pulse. But it's different for the players in Signal -- for most of them, Reich's music wasn't something new and alien and suspiciously un-classical, involving a whole set of heretofore unfamiliar skills they needed to sweat and toil to acquire. Music for 18 was already an established part of the classical music landscape back when they were first getting comfortable with their instruments. These are players who must have known from the beginning that if they ever wanted to play that kind of music, well then obviously they would have to get their groove together.
Signal has their groove together, without question. The results are inspiring, often breathtaking -- the vibraphone fanfares that herald each new section were so deep in the pocket, so right, that they made me giddy. It's undeniable that this is how Steve Reich's music was always meant to be played. It's exciting be in a time and a place where so many young classical players have become fully engaged with the art of the groove.
The opening work, You Are (Varitations), was performed under the direction of Signal padrone Brad Lubman, who worked the air with big gestures and Jet Li-like precision, totally unfazed by the occasional audience member bearing drinks squeezing past right behind him. Reich has said that You Are is a bit of an intentional throwback to his earlier works, but I actually don't hear it that way. Unlike Music for 18, You Are is dense with time-signature shifts, and harmonically it really stretches the boundaries of Reich's usual pan-modalism, with lots of crunchy, tightly-packed sonorities, and even the occasional burst of implied polytonality. It doesn't have the epic sweep and hypnotic warmth of the earlier work, but Reich's interlocking rhythmic structures have recently become much more intricate and complex without sacrificing their immediacy. It's clear that despite what some of his critics have alleged, Reich hasn't been spinning his wheels. Even when he's (in his own words) "not trying to consciously do something new," the results are quite distinct from his earlier output.
Melissa Hughes is one of the singers in Signal. She has posted an inside look at this gig on her blog. You should read it.
1. Warning: Signal's website is absurdly difficult to navigate due to some pretentious web designer's notion that scroll bars are, like, Diabolus in Folio or something.
More pics below the fold...