Steve Reich @ Carnegie Hall @ 75, with devotees

Composer Steve Reich, age 75, knows secrets of correlating pulsating rhythms and interlocking layers of sycopated melodic patterns which he’s eager to reveal in every work he writes. His musical signature is so unwavering it might veer into self-parody, but for the vigor and commitment of his performers. At Carnegie Hall last night four energized new music ensembles poured enthusiasm, precision and a sense of discovery into four recent Reich pieces, making their Master’s overlays, cycles and cells variously delightful, ominous, rockin’, tense, melodramatic and exotic. Reich writes music that’s both reassuring and subversive, and his 75th birthday concert at Carnegie Hall provided both in delicate yet confidentsteve reich.jpeg balance. 

Reich’s music is distinctive, certainly, unlike that of any of the other composers around his age he’s been linked to for their common use of repetition, or seeming repetition,and consonant harmonies (as opposed to that old atonal or 12-tone stuff). Mallet Quartet (2008) played by So Percussion, WTC 9/11 (a commissioned debut) by Kronos Quartet, 2×5 performed by Bang on a Can Allstars and Friends and Double Sextet with eighth blackbird joining the Allstars may not be  Reich’s deepest or most ambitious pieces, but they provide pleasures, live in the moment and make the moment live — not easy things however smoothly the music goes down, and what we hope for from all music, though in contemporary composition we (the editorial “we”) are often disappointed.

No disappointment was voiced or evidently felt by the sell-out crowd of modern music aficionados at Carnegie — indeed, the verve of the people onstage, the sonic luster of the concert space — which given Reich’s instrumentation could really be appreciated — and the presence of Reich himself, baseball-hatted at the soundboard throughout the performances and with all the convened musicians in the bows, gave the evening an unmistakably victorious, celebratory air. “Here’s our hero,” seemed to be the tenor of the audience. “He delivers, and it’s good.” Reich, in turn, provided what people wanted, and then some. 

Throughout Mallet Quartet, 2×5 and Double Sextet the lengthening of Reich’s tuneful lines over his characteristic churning backgrounds suggested the composer’s relaxed virtuosity with his favorite materials. In the first piece, he used marimbas as richly woody bass beds upon which bell-like vibes could ring in fugue, or something like it; in the second, he made a centerpiece of electric guitars and basses and traps kits pounded in tight, dry figures, and in the third mixed woodwinds, strings and pianos (two of them) to create an internationalist array of reference points (accordion a la Piazolla, Bud Powell’s “Parisian Thoroughfare,” tv soap-opera cues, North African/Mediterranean motifs). 
Despite superficial resemblance of Reich’s pieces, they contain considerable differentiation; though they proceed like clockwork, they now incorporate dramatic moduations, “breaks” during which several instruments withdraw while those remaining restart the works’ motors, parts that have the rigor of Japanese court music and in Double Sextet a langorous section which delves into Middle Eastern melisma. So Percussion played their mallet instruments like jugglers having fun by keeping bouncing balls in the air. The Allstars’ guitar army, evidently led by Mark Stewart, was more twangy, less pretentious and more concise than similar formations posed by Glenn Branca, say, or Sonic Youth or La Monte Young. The Allstars and eighth blackbird excelled at giving each Reichian swipe of chord or cluster a gripping attitude, as if hitting the notes were nothing much, but hitting them just so meant the world. And phrasing together, the world was theirs.
In WTC 9/11, Kronos’ strings also brought out the terseness and gripping intensity of Reich’s writing, though they were rendered somewhat secondary to bits of the recorded speech of witnesses to the terrorism rained on downtown New York ten years ago. The combination evinced an Old Testament cold rage I remember Reich summoning even more chillingly in Different Trains, his depiction (performed and recorded by Kronos) of Nazi’s transferring Jews to concentration camps. 
Though this was the premiere of WTC 9/11, it seemed more dated than the program’s others pieces. We have not forgotten the decade-old attack, but have heard many compositions in response to it, and though the trick of apparently triggering samples by bowing cello and violin (MIDI-something? — or just adroit timing with pre-recorded tape?) was well-worked, much of the things people said were garbled, and anyway, familiar. The words might have been intended as poetic — they were published in the concert’s playbill, so presumably the audience could read along, and included bits of Psalm 121:8 and the Wayfarer’s Prayer from Exodus. I was not drawn to do so. During the piece, Kronos violinists David Harrington and John Sherba and violist Hank Dutt intersected in moments as though they were indulging in a side chat, but the tone was unmistakably stark, and WTC 9/11 came to an apocalyptically abrupt end.
Reich has always credited his study of Ghanian drumming for his rhythms, has long had an ear on jazz and its greatest soloists, and on the basis of 2×5 seems aware of the Grateful Dead, too (however, in program notes he declared this was not “pop music” as it relies on musical notation and “performers who have a thorough understanding of the classical idiom as well as rock”). Regardless of acknowledging his wide-ranging influences — or rather, references — Reich completely subordinates them in his works, absorbing, processing and polishing his ideas, wherever they come from, into music that only he can create. Essences from the greater world are distilled into subtle scents, applied to the fundamental aspect of his art: a throbbing, expansive unfolding of interconnections, signifying coherence even while providing for individuality of gesture amid the flux. While Reich’s music is being played, it fills its performance space and duration with sound the way a tapestry interweaves threads into a coherent spread. His music seems to perk with detailed physicality, and encourages listening through its surface for the telling gestures just beneath that level, which are coordinated to construct it. The individual does not stand out in this plan, but is essential to the plan and keeps it from being static. Steve Reich’s music is kaleidoscopic, but all the fragments of melody are united by intricate interplay. Nothing is as simple as it appears at first exposure, and in his most affecting works (of what I’ve heard, Tehillim, The Desert Music, and Music for 18 Musicians) parts together produce infinite depths of warp and woof. Listening to Reich’s music takes me out of myself and within, simultaneously. That perspective is illuminating, and a great gift. Here’s Reich playing a relentless piano part at the end of Music for 18 Musicians, which only suggests the complexity one hears when present with, and so within, the music as it actually happens.


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  1. says

    I imagine WTC 9/11 has a whole new meaning now, in light of the events of recent days… A nice antidote to the scrannel chants of jingoism popping up everywhere… A prayer of gratitude, but for peace?
    HM: Scrannel?

  2. says

    “Scrannel”: opposite of “dulcet”. Too fond of archaisms, I know. It’s part of the poet in me.
    HM: Fine word, thanks for introducing it to JBJ!