September 17, 2010

Postminimalist Daddy Rock

Yale Daily News, 09/17/2010

There was a time in classical music when the more complex and difficult to listen to a piece was, the better it was considered. It was in reaction to this world that Steve Reich’s style first developed. In the 1960s, when much other music was extremely complex, abstract and constantly changing, his music was pared down, very rhythmic and very repetitive. It is this style that has made Reich one of the most famous and influential living American composers today.

To the generation of post-minimalist composers he was something of stylistic father. He inspired them to use repetition as a basis for creating clear contexts, to explore complex rhythms previously unheard in Western music, and paved the way toward reinventing classical music so that its sounds, its audiences and its venues are no longer mutually exclusive from those of popular music.

Reich’s style has developed over time, but many of the key features of his music have remained more or less unchanged for many years. Much of his music features lush harmonies, abrupt modulations and lively rhythms. One feature that has been a mainstay of Reich’s style is having multiple players of the same instrument play very similar, often identical patterns that drift apart. This is a technique called phasing, and it creates a fascinating rhythmic interplay between instruments. This was first explored in some pieces for tape loops playing back at different speeds, but soon led to experimentation with instruments with pieces like “Piano Phase” and “Violin Phase” (1967).

Reich further explored this by having single players multitrack record themselves many times to create thick textures of the same instrument in pieces like “Vermont Counterpoint” (1982), for many flutes; “New York Counterpoint” (1985), for many clarinets; and “Electric Counterpoint” (1987), for many electric guitars.

On his latest release, “Double Sextet/2×5,” this multitracking is the basis for both of the two pieces presented, but instead of overdubbing one instrument many times, here an entire ensemble is overdubbed with itself, creating two sets of the instruments.

The first piece on the album is Reich’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Double Sextet,” performed by Grammy Award-winning ensemble Eighth Blackbird. This piece comprises two sets of the following: flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano and vibraphone. The other piece on the album is “2×5” which comprises two sets of: drum set, piano, two electric guitars and electric bass. This piece is performed by musicians of Bang on a Can — an organization dedicated to keeping classical music alive and relevant founded by composers Michael Gordon MUS ’82, David Lang MUS ’83 and Julia Wolfe MUS ’86 in 1987.

The pieces on this album are energetic and rhythmic. They are exciting, they are colorful, they are beautiful, they are just what we expect from Reich. Alex Ross once commented on Reich’s music by saying that “pieces like this can leave you happy for hours, like drugs without the mess.” These words ring true for these new works just as they do for many of Reich’s older works.

At times with Reich’s music, however, one sometimes gets the feeling that one has heard the music before. As I mentioned, Reich’s style has been consistent for many years, so a bit of what was once innovative about this music, and even avant-garde in its own way, has faded. If Reich was like a father to the post-minimalist generation of composers, to many American composers of the youngest generation he is like a grandfather — he is very wise and we love him and his music, but sometimes we feel that he tells us the same stories again and again.

Nevertheless, there are moments in “Double Sextet” that might catch you off guard in the best way. The slow middle movement for example, has these gorgeous ebbing and flowing melodic lines traded between the instruments. With poignant swells and phrasing — a beautiful performance on Eight Blackbird’s part — the music blossoms into an unlikely aria. The rollicking finale has its share of surprises too, when a chord progression that sounds almost like a rock refrain begins to emerge at the end.

“2×5,” though comprised of the instrumentation of a rock band, sounds no more like rock than “Double Sextet”. The guitars are using an octave pedal to play higher than normal, and are playing with a pretty clean sound. For the most part they sound very twangy, and bell-like — more like some strange kind of vibraphone than the electric guitars we are used to. The drums too take on a different role than in rock music. Here instead of setting up the backbeat, they participate in the intricate interlocking rhythms as equals with the other instruments. This piece sounds very much of Reich’s usual style, but it too has its moments that transcend. The transitions in the first movement, for example, result in beautiful, fleeting textures as they pick up into Reich’s tried and true perpetuum mobile textures. The piece culminates in wonderful summary of the rhythms with everyone playing in a more consistent, interlocking way, with the sound quickly tossed back and forth between the two ensembles across the left and right speakers, cascading through euphoric harmonies.

For those familiar with Reich’s work, this album is a wonderful addition to Reich’s catalog. For those unfamiliar with Reich’s work, “Double Sextet/2×5” isn’t a bad place to start, but interested listeners should be sure to also check out the classics such as “Music for 18 Musicians” (1976) and “Different Trains” (1988).