Steve Reich @ 70

This past weekend was the Carnegie Hall part of the Steve Reich 70th birthday celebrations. I’m a big fan of Reich, and so I’d bought tickets to all three concerts a couple months ago. There was a Young Artists concert on Thursday evening, where Reich and his musicians worked with a bunch of young musicians on his music for a week and a half before the performance. Saturday night was Pat Metheny performing Electric Counterpoint, the Kronos Quartet performing Different Trains, and Steve Reich and Musicians performing Music for 18 Musicians. Sunday night was Cello Counterpoint, Piano/Video Phase, the American premiere of Daniel Variations, and then Drumming, the piece that introduced me to Reich ten years ago.

It was an awesome weekend.

I have so much I want to share that this post is going to be ludicrously sized. But since it’s for my own memory, I’m going to write it all, and you can pick and choose as you see fit. If you read all the way to the bottom, there’s even a treat!

So here’s a list of all the different pieces I’m going to talk about.

One thing I’d like to comment on before getting into the specifics of individual pieces is how much I enjoy Reich’s music. I’ve talked a bit about how modern art is often conceptually interesting but aesthetically unappealing. Reich is a great counterexample. I find his work to have an interesting theoretical basis, but also to be pleasurable on a purely aesthetic level. I can appreciate the music in a variety of different ways: by trying to follow and understand the different ways in which he builds up his dense musical textures, or by just sitting back with my eyes closed and letting the music wash over me, or by enjoying the visual spectacle of his music being performed. This weekend was a true joy to see his music being performed and get a better sense of how it all fits together. Now on to specific commentary…

Music for Pieces of Wood, performed by young artists

This was the first piece performed during the weekend, and it was a great piece to start with as it illustrated the quality of Reich that I find so compelling: that he can take simple elements and create such interesting combinations. This piece is for claves, which are basically two sticks, one held in each hand, that you hit together. Five percussionists, with five differently tuned claves. One starts by setting up a steady beat. The next jumps in with a pattern on top of the beat. The next starts a very common Reich technique of building up their pattern one note at a time. So playing one note per pattern block of the second clave. Then two notes. Then three, until the whole pattern is built up. Then he fades, and the fourth clave jumps in, building up their pattern in a different way. Then the fifth in a different way, until he hits his final pattern, and all of the claves suddenly are in unison banging out their pattern, and then they fade out and start building up the next pattern, one player at a time. Such a simple idea. So interesting in practice.

The percussionists were great. All of the young artists were. The other pieces in the Young Artists concert were:

  • Sextet, which I wanted to like more than I did
  • Triple Quartet (two pre-recorded tracks of the quartet with the performers playing the third quartet live), which was interesting in conception, but lacked a bit in performance – it was originally written for the Kronos Quartet which is a high standard, and
  • City Life, which uses extensive sampling of city noises, including people saying things like “Check it out”, and sirens. Interesting in conception again, but not quite as compelling to me in performance.

Electric Counterpoint, performed by Pat Metheny

This piece was commissioned for Pat Metheny, so this was the definitive version of the piece. It’s scored for “guitar soloist and guitar ensemble of 12 guitars and 2 electric bass guitars”, but Reich being who he is, the guitar ensemble is actually Pat Metheny, taped playing each part to be his own guitar ensemble. It’s a bit hard to follow all the lines happening on the tape as they are not visually apparent (more on this later), but Metheny did a great job with it. Plus, again, the conception is really interesting.

Different Trains, performed by Kronos Quartet

This piece was commissioned for the Kronos Quartet, so another definitive performance. Like Electric Counterpoint, the live performers are accompanied by a pre-recorded tape that includes two versions of themselves as well as other sound effects like sirens and speech samples. Steve Reich’s notes explain the conception of the piece:

“The idea for the piece comes from my childhood. When I was one year old, my parents separated, with my mother going to Los Angeles and my father staying in New York. Since they arranged divided custody, I traveled back and forth by train frequently between New York and Los Angeles from 1939 to 1942, accompanied by my governess. While these trips were exciting and romantic at the time, I now look back and think that, as a Jew, if I had been in Europe during this period I would have had to ride very different trains.”

He went and interviewed his governess and a retired Pullman porter to get speech snippets describing the experience of American trains before the war, and then interviewed Holocaust survivors to get speech snippets describing the experience of European trains during the war. Then there’s a final section of After the War. The speech snippets have pitch, and he gets the various instruments to accompany and imitate the snippets. This grows particularly effective in the European section of the piece, where the snippet is only played once, but the notes continue to play, as if the words can only be uttered once because they are so painful, but we can not forget their echo. It’s a tremendously affecting piece, and Kronos Quartet does a phenomenal job with it.

Music for 18 Musicians, performed by Steve Reich and Musicians

This was the highlight I was looking forward to after seeing this six years ago. It was just as amazing the second time. The visual spectacle of watching three people play the marimba together. The sheer wall of sound.

But there were things I picked up this time that I had missed last time, and that I hadn’t gotten from listening to the CD dozens of times. I noticed how a couple different sections had the xylophones building up their patterns as they do in Music for Pieces of Wood or Drumming. It makes sense, as that is such a Reich technique, but I hadn’t noticed before until I saw it happening in front of me.

The other thing I really liked this time was how human the piece was. We often think of minimalist pieces as being dehumanizing in how they conform to mechanical variations of a theme. But Music for 18 Musicians has the fundamentally human element of the singers and clarinets taking breaths together (and I read in the notes how they repeat their chords for two breaths each so the whole piece is timed to the human breath). I also liked how they coordinated the movement and different parts. When a section was about to move on to a new section or configuration, people would move to their new locations, get ready, and then make eye contact or nod to the vibraphonist, who would step up, and play the sequence of notes indicating the move to the next section. It was wonderfully choreographed and a pleasure to watch. I need to find out how to contact Steve Reich to tell him that I’d pay for a DVD of his ensemble performing this piece. No commentary, no fancy camera angles. Just a single overhead camera and good sound mixing, letting the music speak for itself.

The performance was excellent, and earned a well-deserved instant standing ovation that went electric when Reich was forced by his group to take a solo bow.

Cello Counterpoint, performed by Maya Beiser

After the thrills of Saturday night. it was hard to see how Sunday night would stand up, but I think it may have even exceeded Saturday. It started out with Cello Counterpoint, performed by Maya Beiser, for whom the piece was commissioned. Like Electric Counterpoint, this piece has the performer playing against taped versions of themselves. The bit they added was that they had actually videotaped Maya recording each of the other tracks, and then spliced together a video of seven slices of her sitting side-by-side, each performing a different track. They displayed that on a big screen behind her as she performed the eighth live track. Normally I find video art to be self-indulgent tripe, but this was _wonderful_. It added so much to the performance to be able to see her do each part, especially in the second movement, where she plays a seven-part canon against herself; watching the melody ripple across the screen through each of the different Mayas just enhanced the auditory experience.

And Maya Beiser did a great job. I’m putting her in my personal category of wonderfully energetic women soloists like Lauren Flanigan and Leila Josefowicz, who throw their entire bodies into the music (I’m not sure why I can’t think of any similarly energetic male soloists. Me, getting a crush on attractive, energetic, talented women? Can’t imagine why you’d think that). She also toured as the featured soloist in Naqoyqatsi with the Philip Glass Ensemble. Definitely a name I’m going to keep an eye out for.

Piano/Video Phase, performed by David Cossin

Piano Phase was an early piece written by Steve Reich, experimenting with phasing in and out of rhythm, a technique he took to the extreme in Drumming. It’s for two pianos, playing the same bit more and more out of phase with each other.

David Cossin took that idea and ran with it. He’s actually a percussionist, so he sampled the piano tune, and broke it up into pieces that could be activated by hitting a MIDI pad. So by playing the right sequence of MIDI pads, he could generate the piano tune. Then he videotaped himself playing the straight line of the piano tune. During the concert, that video is projected onto a screen in front of where he is sitting. So when he starts playing live, he’s playing in sync with the video. As his part phases behind, you can see him get slowly behind his video counterpart. And then phase another beat back. And eventually they sync up again, and start a new section. It was excellent. This was another example of video art that actually added something to the experience; if I had just heard the pianos playing, I might have been able to follow the phasing, but it would have been difficult. But by seeing it visually, with him hitting pads just a split second behind his video counterpart, and then a little bit further behind the next iteration, and a bit further behind, until it’s a full beat behind. So cool. I’d pay for a DVD of that too.

Daniel Variations, performed by Steve Reich and Musicians

This was commissioned by the Daniel Pearl Foundation in memory of Daniel Pearl, the journalist killed in Pakistan in 2002. Reich chose to approach it by juxtaposing verses from the book of Daniel in the Bible, where Daniel is asked to interpret the king of Babylon’s dream (Reich pointed out that Babylon was where Iraq is now), with words of Daniel Pearl. This piece received its world premiere earlier this month in London, and this performance was the American premiere.

I really liked it. It showed Reich’s growth as a composer. Unlike pieces like Music for 18 Musicians or Drumming, it had no artifice in its construction, no technique mechanically applied repeatedly. It was just flat-out good. The Bible sections were heavy on ponderous percussion, which makes sense, and the Daniel Pearl sections were led by the strings, as Pearl was an accomplished fiddle player. I liked the string writing especially, which surprised me because Reich’s strength has always been percussion. The incorporation of the voices was also well-done; instead of wordless humming, the singers got to sing actual phrases set in a variety of different ways. The piece reminded me a bit of some of John Adams’s work, which is interesting, as Reich and Adams are generally acknowledged to be the top two living American composers. In particular, the high interlocking vocal harmonies reminded me a bit of the three countertenor parts from El Nino.

Great stuff. I can’t wait for the CD.

Drumming, performed by Steve Reich and Musicians

And the conclusion to the weekend was Drumming, the piece that started it all for me ten years ago. I went to see the Talujon Percussion Quartet at Stanford, and they played the first movement from Drumming, and I was like “Whoa!” This time was particularly great for me, as I had never seen the entire piece performed – just the first movement.

For those that don’t know, Drumming is the ultimate in Steve Reich’s phasing and beat-adding techniques. He starts off on tuned bongo drums with two players playing a single note repeatedly. Then, like Music for Pieces of Wood, he adds notes, so it’s a two-note pattern for four repetitions. Then three notes, etc., until it’s built up into a 12-note pattern. Then the players slowly get out of phase, until one gets a full beat in front of the other. Then they do it again. Then other drummers come in and add some embellishment on top of the pattern. Then they phase back until they’re in unison, start dropping beats until it’s back to a single beat again, and then they build it up again in a different order. From there, it is passed onto the low range of the marimbas, building its way up through there in a variety of ways, before getting passed onto the glockenspiels, before the final movement brings all the instruments back together.

It’s hard to do it justice with an explanation in words. And even though the CD is amazing, it’s so much better live (another DVD I’d pay for). I had semi-accidentally gotten tickets high up and on the side of the auditorium (because I bought tickets too late to get in the main section of Zankel Hall), so I had a great overhead view to watch how the piece evolved. Watching from above, I could watch the two drummers get slowly out of phase, as one would hit the drum just an instant behind the other, and then further behind until they locked in a beat apart. It also made it totally apparent which parts of the sound were the result of the interlocking patterns, and which were embellishments on top of the patterns. Plus, it made it clear how they switch from the stick end of their sticks to the muffled soft end to get a different sound on the drums when they rebuild the pattern halfway through the first movement.

Once they moved on to the marimbas, we got to see all nine percussionists crowded around three marimbas. In fact, five were playing the same marimba at the same time at one point. And, again, being able to see the players on two marimbas phase away from each other made it clearer what was going on in the music. And I could also hear the overtones that sounded like voices that convinced Reich to add two female vocalists to accentuate those overtones. Neat effect. Later on, Reich whistles to add to the glockenspiel overtones. And as it gets even higher, he uses a piccolo player.

Anyway, it was a thrill to see the piece live in its entirety. I highly recommend seeing it if you ever get the chance. Like Music for 18 Musicians, it got a well-deserved instant standing ovation, and was a worthy conclusion to a fantastic weekend of concerts.

As part of the celebration, Nonesuch has released a 5 CD set of Reich’s work. I already have three CDs of Reich (Music for 18 Musicians, Drumming and Desert Music), and all three pieces were included in the 5 CDs, so I had about half the music. But there was lots of stuff I didn’t have including several of the pieces I’d heard and liked this weekend like Different Trains, Electric Counterpoint and Cello Counterpoint. And the price ($35) was basically the cost of the two new CDs worth of music I’d be getting. So I bought it. So the treat for those of you who read to the end of this post is that if you’re interested in Reich’s music and want any of the three CDs I previously had but are duplicated in the 5 CD set, let me know which one, and I’ll send it to you. Please do this only if you’re actually interested in the music.

P.S. Thanks for the great comments on my customer service post – I want to pick up on that thread, but I haven’t had time; I was busy on Saturday afternoon prepping for my corporate finance class, concert Saturday evening, more work Sunday morning, Dale Chihuly at the Botanical Gardens Sunday afternoon, concert Sunday evening, then a conference call with my corporate finance group after the concert Sunday evening. Tonight was doing a few pages of writing for my Tuesday class, and another conference call finishing up corporate finance discussion. But I think I’m in good shape at the moment so hence the post.

Posted in nyc

4 thoughts on “Steve Reich @ 70

  1. Wow! My admiration/envy levels are huge!

    Dan gave me MP3s for Drumming, and I really like it. I’d love to have one of the other two. Which do you suggest?

  2. Hey Eric

    Glad you liked the Reich concerts in NY. As one of the singers in Synergy Vocals who sang and played the piano in Daniel and 18 is great to hear such positive comments from people in the audience. 18 Musicians is such a magnificent piece, I’ve performed it about 40 times now; I never get sick of it and hear new things in it every time. It is also a great privilege to work with Steve and the other guys in his ensemble. Daniel Variations is a truly beautiful and moving piece. I can’t wait for the CD too!

    Best regards


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