Steve Reich

September of His Years



80 is going to be a very good year for Steve Reich (born October 3, 1936). There are concerts around the world celebrating his achievements, and he will be a prominent, season long presence here in New York City.

You can read my reviews of two recent concerts, and looking closely ahead:

  • October 25: Ensemble Signal is back at Miller Theatre for one of their 6 p.m., free Pop-Up Concerts, playing Cello Counterpoint, NY Counterpoint, and the early, experimental Pendulum Music.
  • October 29: At Juilliard, Jeffrey Milarsky conducts the AXIOM ensemble in early and recent pieces, including the gorgeous Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ, and City Life, which increasingly builds an importance equal to Music for 18 Musicians.
  • November 1: In Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall, ICE, So Percussion, Synergy Vocals, and conductor David Robertson will play Quartet, the video opera Three Tales, and the world premiere of Pulse. It’s worth noting here that Reich continues to put make outstanding new pieces that are moving his style forward into new areas of harmony, rhythm, and form.
  • December 10: National Sawdust and the World Music Institute are presenting a concert with Ghanaian master drummer Gideon Alorwoyie and Mantra Percussion, playing traditional music and excerpts from Drumming.

And if you can’t wait, or you can’t make it, order yourself Steve Reich: The ECM Recordings, a neat little box to be released September 30 that collects the first recording of Music for 18 Musicians, probably the single most important record of the last 50 years, along with everything else ECM released (which includes Octet, which Reich later revised into Eight Lines). Consider this an essential part of your music library.

Recording of the Week: Third Coast Percussion, Steve Reich

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Third Coast Percussion: Steve Reich

Mallet Quartet; Sextet, Nagoya Marimbas, Music for Pieces of Wood

New recordings of the music of Steve Reich are easy to recommend: he’s arguably the most important composer of the last fifty years, and because he’s a contemporary, every new release adds to our understanding of his work. That is as true for poorly played recordings and of lesser compositions; the bad stuff sets the good stuff into greater relief.

There is nothing bad on this recording in terms of either the writing or the playing, it is all very good. The most recent work is the Mallet Quartet, from 2009 (originally released on a Nonesuch disc in 2011 along with WTC 9/11 and Dance Patterns). This is one of Reichs’ finest recent works—propulsive, and mixing his developing ideas about harmony and form with this exceptional ear for integrated patterns and syncopation. Third Coast Percussion’s performance is excellent, it swings and has a beautiful sonority. This is also one of the best engineered recordings I’ve heard in years—Dan Nichols set it down at Notre Dame’s DeBartolo Performing Arts Center—with a lush, clear presence.

The big piece on here is the Sextet, now thirty years old, in a performance with pianists David Friend and Oliver Hagen that purrs along like a Porsche. The disc is filled out withNagoya Marimbas and Music for Pieces of Wood, the first lovely and the second bracing.

In the liner notes, the group points out that they are among the second, or even third, generation of musicians to play this music. The recording affirms how well this great body of work, and its unique demands, has been assimilated in the current (and future) such generations.

Consumer Reports

Because it’s the time of year you should also spend some money on yourself, here’s another Consumer Reports …

Theodor Currentzis’ excellent, refreshing recording of Le Nozze di Figaro has a spot on my top classical recordings for 2014, and if that interests you at all, you should take a look at his next installment of his Da Ponte operas recording project, Cosí fan tutte. Like the previous release, you can get the CDs in a lovely, bound book, or pay more for an edition that includes Blu-Ray. The set is currently available at Presto Classical, but if you can wait until the domestic release date of 3 February, 2015, the best price is at Amazon.


If you have a turntable, you can enjoy the vinyl reissue of a fine set of early Steve Reich pieces from Ensemble Avantgarde (best price right now is at ImportCDs). The program is Phase Patterns, Four Organs, Piano Phase, and three different performances of Pendulum Music. This is fascinating music that show Reich in transition to his most familar style, and Four Organs is an avant-garde masterpiece.

If you want to save your dollars for something really special, there are two substantial boxes of recordings from Sviatoslav Richter coming out early next year, The Complete Album Collection on Sony (18 CDs of Columbia Masterworks and RCA Victor live and studio recordings), and the Complete Decca, Philips and DG Recordings, 51 CDs. I don’t really need to say much about these; Richter is arguably the greatest pianist of the last century, and absolutely one of the greatest musical artists of the recording era. These are the kind of things that, if you are serious about music, you acquire, and cost doesn’t really matter.

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These are listed both at ImportCDs and Amazon, the former at much better prices, but it’s worth checking out the balance of price and speed you can find through AmazonUK. What you get there is a better price than US Amazon, pretty fast delivery, and the same pre-order guaranteee available domestically: if you pre-order, you get the lowest price that ever comes up by release date. I ordered my Boulez box that way, got a better price than even at ImportCDs, and it came in three days.

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Hitting my inbox this morning was an exciting surprise: the tracks for the newest Steve Reich recording, release date September 30. New music and older music newly done.

The meat is the recorded premiere of his new piece, Radio Rewrite, and strong synthesis of the work he’s been doing with harmony since City Life, his sub rosa interest in progressive rock that has been quietly clear since 2×5 and a subtle, but clear, rewrite of some of the richest harmonic structures from Radiohead’s songs. I’ve got more thoughts on the piece in my review of the NY premiere.

Filling out the recording is Johnny Greenwood’s take on Electric Counterpoint, which is light and strong—though nothing can touch Andrew McKenna Lee’s version—and Piano Counterpoint, a transcription that Vincent Corver made of Six Pianos. This new version has four of the original piano parts pre-recorded, and Vicky Chow plays the hell out of a distillation of the remaining two parts.

This is one of the most notable recordings of the year, and you can pre-order it in a variety of formats at Nonesuch.

(Alarm Will Sound performs Radio Rewrite as part of the Nonesuch Records at BAM series

Finding Something Out In The Night

(Cross-posted from my Galapagos Critic-in-Residence page)

Sometimes what matters most about a musical performance is not the tunes and the playing, but how things have come about, and how they could have. This must seem vague, so bear with me a bit.

The two performances I saw at Galapagos in May, percussionist Kuniko Kato playing her arrangements of pieces by Steve Reich, and the piano duo Anderson & Roe playing their arrangements of music ranging from “Billie Jean” to Carmen, and Stravinsky’s own reduction of the score for the Rite of Spring to piano, four-hands. These were both debuts in a way, not first appearances in public by these musicians but events meant to celebrate and promote new recordings.

One evening in between the two, I stood on the observation deck of the Austrian Cultural Forum, looking over West 52nd Street with the composer Bernhard Lang who, like me, has a formative background in jazz. If you found yourself on that street seventy years ago, or Bleeker street twenty years later, you not only had your choice of what to hear within walking distance but literally within earshot, but also your choice of what was new, of musicians and styles that you had never heard before, maybe never heard of, or even dreamed of, before. It seems exciting, and unimaginable now.

Because it is unimaginable now. Where is there anyplace like that any more? Small pockets of Williamsburg and Bushwick, perhaps, but a row of nightclubs and music venues featuring young phenoms and established stars, not only in popular music but the most cutting edge styles — remember that Be-Bop was once the avant-garde — that kind of thing has been priced out of Manhattan. Dumbo as a neighborhood is such a pluperfect example of cutting-edge hipness in consumerism that I half expect to bump into David Brooks any day, gazing in awe and wonder at the lengths to which the cultured bourgeoisie seek to enshrine their own narcissism in real estate. Not that Brooks could offer anything more than his knee-jerk, condescending tut-tutting. To know Dumbo, read J.G. Ballard.

Galapagos, perched on a windy corner, often seems a lonely outpost at night, surrounded by indifferent apartment buildings, with indifferent, silent denizens. Who goes there, who steps out of their building and strolls over to see what’s happening? The Floating Kabarette is a draw, but I mean music shows, out of the ordinary things, the kind of thing where, in a densely populated urban neighborhood, people passing to and fro stop to explore? This is a strange thing about the area. I live in a decidedly non-hip residential neighborhood in Brooklyn, and people are out on the streets all the time, into the evening, but Dumbo in the evening and at night could be a ghost town. But in this eminently walkable city, there is little time and space to wander and be curious, people just can’t afford it, lest the engine of the economy roll them over. Perhaps, too, people are shut in against the incessant, crushing noise of the D train rolling over the Manhattan Bridge, but if so, why are they living there?
It seems the Art Space struggles against this obstacle. Reich is titan of contemporary music and, in a country where composers don’t register on the public consciousness, he is generally popular with sophisticated fans of all sorts of music. Yet Kuniko’s concert was lightly attended, and much of the audience seemed connected to the music through the Consulate General of Japan. This was an excellent concert. The music, “Electric Counterpoint,” “Six Marimbas,” Vermont Counterpoint” and “New York Counterpoint,” with modest and lovely arrangements of Bach and Komitas, speaks for itself, and Kuniko’s craft is superior. Reich’s work lends itself easily to transcription to other instruments, and the pitfall is that it is so easy that the results can be lazy and dull. She has a subtle and imaginative ear for color, and moving the lead voice of the opening movement of “Electric” to steel drums was a gorgeous touch, adding a shimmering, sustained richness as well as a delayed attack that made for a new, ambient quality.

Percussion instruments call for a great apparent physicality in playing than guitars or violins or flutes, and that was visually important in the concert, not only the effort of Kuniko in striking metal and wood with beaters, but her dancing movements. She was filled up with the physicality of Reich’s beat, even as the sonic edge of the musical was gentler, as in the transfer of “New York” from piping clarinets to mellow marimbas. The music is very well known by now, but she made it refreshing. With her own ear and taste she responded to pieces that she clearly feels are beautiful and gave us music-making that took for granted the intellectual success of the composer’s process and craft and gave us the sheer beauty of it, and that’s a considerable thing.

Anderson & Roe do the same thing, responding to music that appeals to them and sharing it with the audience. What makes them special is the expressive verve and personal appeal in their playing. They play classical music, the real stuff, nothing is dumbed down for the audience. Arrangements of “Paranoid Android” are commonplace these days, and that’s because the origina material is so strong. Christopher O’Riley has revealed a lot of the sophisticated harmonic and structural qualities in Radiohead in his solo transcriptions, and using two pianos brings out even more depth in the motion of the harmonies and section to section juxtapositions. And in case you missed it amidst all the gossip and soap opera, Michael Jackson also made a lot of good music, and if you think there’s something wrong with ‘sophisto’ musicians playing “Billie Jean,” then you’re going to have to take it up with me, because when I was in a working band we played it as well. And it’s a good song.

Talking to the audience is good thing too, and if the duo are a little too garrulous at times, it doesn’t detract from their great playing and thinking. They play Stravinsky with fantastic power, and if the composers’ reduction takes away the mesmerizing instrumental colors of his orchestration, it clarifies texture and rhythm, and puts a premium on the pianists’ ability to carve expression and aesthetic focus through dynamics, and the two did so much with that. They have the chops to hit all the notes and to say something about them.
Their unabashed emotional and physical vitality adds a great deal: not only are they masterful players of Astor Piazzolla, which is expected, but they bring out the muscle in music that is, personally, far too sentimental for me, particularly the Rachmaninoff “Vocalese” and the Villa-Lobos “Bachianas Brasilieras No. 5.” The Rachmaninoff was special, not swooning but with a dry strength, and the exquisite cadenza brought them deserved “bravos.” Behind their flair, they are at their best in quieter music, pieces that reveal the fine quality of their musicianship. The arrangement of Carmen is the crowd-pleasing closer, it is well made and will please you as much as the opera does, but the highlights of the evening where the songful, soulful playing of “The Glitt’ring Sun” by Thomas Arne, and an enthralling performance of Schumann’s “Mondnacht,” which I wished would never end, and wished more that it would lay silence over the rattle outside, so that people in windows across the street might, curious, open them to hear something new, something that might draw them out into the night, and by chance wander and discover something new.

October Light Playlist

Wolfgang Mitterer, Music for Checking e-mails

Alvin Lucier, Almost New York; There are some lovely drone/tuning pieces on here from Lucier. “Twonings” sets cello against piano, the stringed instrument at times matching the piano note while at others the cellist plays a sharp or flat microtone, setting up Lucier’s characteristic sonic beating. Having two live musicians playing, rather than one against an oscillator, adds both extra tension and expressive beauty.

Tom Hamilton, Off-Hour Wait State; Ever wait for the subway at 4:00am? A classic, mesmerizing.

Sonic Youth, Goodbye 20th Century; Is it a classic punk rock album, a classic of rock improvisation, or a classic set of 20th century experimental music? Yes to all, and one of The Big City’s Essential recordings.

Stay Awake and September Songs; two of producer Hal Willner’s finest collections, the first interpretations of songs from Disney movies, the second some exceptionally fine ‘covers’ of some of Kurt Weill’s greatest songs, like “Youkali Tango” and “Lost in the Stars.” This in honor of Robert Wilson’s production of The Threepenny Opera, which I’ll be seeing tonight. Stay Awake, with it’s humor, intelligence and beautiful narrative, is another Essential recording.

London Chamber Orchestra, Minimalist; this collection has gone through several releases, and even if you know the music is worthwhile for the exceptional performances.

London Gabrieli Brass Ensemble, From the Steeples to the Mountains

Musical Misremembrance & 9/11

What kind of music should accompany commemorations of 9/11? If that strikes you as a ridiculous question, than you are already sympathetic to my critical aims.

In the abstract, there’s nothing strange about it. Music, when made by more than one person, is originally a social art, a way to bring non-kinfolk together in peace and pleasure. Music has also been used, since before the dawn of recorded civilization, to mark tragic occasions, like deaths. No one blinks an eye over the catalogue of musical Requiem Masses in the classical repertoire, from the liturgical tradition to the explicitly social and political ones from Haydn.

Perhaps this may be the mistake of assuming that I, and we, are special observers, but things are not the same this time around. Ten years ago, a group of fanatics engineered a violent attack on civilians for a political purpose, the definition of terrorism. It succeeded beyond their wildest dreams – they never imagined that the twin towers of the World Trade Center would completely collapse. Much of the rest, though, they did imagine; drawing the United States into a needless, mindless war against a Muslim country in the Middle East, secondarily draining the military, social and economic resources of this country. That was the tactical plan, the strategic goal being, by default, become the political organization the Islamic world would be drawn to, in a Manichean struggle against the West that would result in a restoration of the Medieval Caliphate.

The tactical brilliance was matched only by the strategic looniness, but perhaps in the thinking of bin Laden the two were inseparable. He was a con man, blessed by history to have, in George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleeza Rice, Colin Powell and their truly useful idiots from Christopher Hitchens to Andrew Sullivan, from The New York Times to The New Republic to The National Review, the perfect mark. He also seems to have recognized the nature of the American Political/Media Industrial Complex: twenty-four hour cable news focussing obsessively on repeating the same images, the same endless stream of phrases needed to fill up time when information is wanting; a political propaganda machine that would take the frozen fearfulness of a puerile President and sell it as courage; the pundits, by profession shallow, ignorant generalists, who, in order to deserve their paychecks must studiously show a lack of independent or critical thought, and in their inherent callowness and egotism felt that they were the targets, that they were in personal danger, and so were afraid, and so cleaved to the dauphin, and, unready and afraid together, they held each other in a death grip orgy of fright, reeking of flop-sweats, spinning like a ball of sardines, willing to sacrifice those on the edges to predators.

Of course, the predators never came. Death in the towers, the Pentagon, a field in Pennsylvania was mostly for the middle class and those below, the types of ‘folks’ that no one in the Political/Media Industrial Complex ever thinks of except as a rube to sell some bullshit to. And the things that might disturb their lovely, delicate minds were quickly disappeared down the Memory Hole, starting with any reminder of people who had to face the worst of the terror, and leapt from the towers. When was the last time you saw those images? Ten years ago, likely. And then, anthrax! Who died from that? Nobodies, accidents of fate, people who didn’t deserve it. That anthrax was first an important piece of evidence in the false indictment of Saddam Hussein and then was Something That Must Be Forgotten is a tribute to how the construction of Magical Thinking, the spell that Bush Kept Us Safe, was far more important, both directly to his reelection campaign and indirectly, in that the bargain that too many acquiesced to, the one that sold out that fundamental features that made this country what it was, hinged on the concept that it was acceptable to no longer be America and allow the government to freely spy on all of us because those same government organs would, again, keep us safe. Questioning the competence of the FBI would put that into question, and might lead American to realize that they were already safe, that the country was under no Existential Threat (pundit speak for ‘I’m a quavering coward and want Big Daddy to protect me’). No one must question the Establishment Conventional Wisdom, because no one must show up the Establishment.

What we got instead was exhortations to go shopping, free wars to make Thomas Friedman feel like he was some sort of tough guy, and “God Bless America.” It’s no surprise that the worst of all events would be sentimentalized by the Political/Media Industrial Complex – that’s the main way that important and difficult problems are explained away and then dismissed – but the speed of it, on the same day, was breathtaking. And that it emanated from Congress itself, spontaneously, one voice at a time, made it clear on that day, in that moment, that our leaders would act like children, and that the passionate intensity of the worst would be the way forward. But America had it’s new theme song for the Global War on Terror. Death Metal would have been more appropriate.

And now it’s been ten year, an arbitrary number that has the seemingly magical even-ness to round out the entire poisonous, sentimentalized, violent passage of time since. For ten years, America has been like “Gladiator,” a bill of goods of fake, rote emotional styles and state sponsored viciousness. A country founded on ideas – rather than extended family relations, religion or language – especially the idea of individual liberty as the highest moral aspiration of the state, is now a country defined by blood, religion, language, borders and, worst of all, the desire to ferret out Wrongthink and to debase ourselves by torturing other human beings, people with souls, simply because we have both the power to do so and the atavistic desire for revenge. But it made Thomas Friedman happy.

After ten years of this, what is the right music for the occasion? We are, in a way, commemorating not only those who lost their lives, but the sentimentalized fear that anyone, even in the immediate aftermath, might actually think about what happened. “It’s too soon,” “it’s inappropriate,” “I don’t want to see that,” these are responses of fear. Better to sing “God Bless America,” shop and support our troops and let bin Laden escape at Tora Bora then actually face what happened and do something about it. A good response is always to find some simple answer that wraps it all up, but after 9/11 the ‘best’ response was to … ignore it. Most egregious was the Boston Symphony canceling a performances of choruses from John Adams’ Death of Klinghoffer, because of possible sensitivity to the subject matter (keep moving folks, nothing to see here), an excercise in sentimentalized fear that Richard Taruskin characterized as ‘noble,’ claiming that the opposite was ‘sentimental complacency,’ in a neat bit of intellectual jiu-jitsu that made facing a difficult issue wrong and, even worse, impolite. But the ubiquitous Brahms Requiem, the ultimate in classical comfort food, is not much better, telling everyone it’s going to be all right. Comfort, yes indeed, let us comfort each other as people, but to tell each other, as adults, that everything is going to be alright? No, it’s not, and it hasn’t been, and it maybe never will.

Music is everywhere, still, especially in New York City and probably everywhere in the country. What is the right kind of music? There are pieces already made for the occasion, an honorable but difficult task. Adams’ On The Transmigration of Souls is a terrible piece; it’s a poorly written pastiche of his own techniques, coming to no effective musical resolution, it’s expression is obvious and it falsely wraps treacle in the garb of aesthetic soberness and objectivity. Why did Taruskin never pick up his pen against it? It won the Pulitzer, of course, because a piece on 9/11 is supposed to win the Pulitzer. Now we have Steve Reich’s new WTC 9/11, available already before the entire new CD comes out. It is also a bad piece of music, bad in the same way that Adams’ is bad. In contrast to Reich’s City Life, a vibrant, complex work that includes sampled communications from the early World Trade Center bombing, the new work is based around communications for 9/11. It’s easy, and lazy, he seems to have put no effort into crafting an interesting musical accompaniment to his samples and while the Kronos Quartet gamefully tries to impart depth to the square, chugging rhyhtms and the watered-down vinegar of the dissonant harmonies, they have no real material to work with.

Again, what is the right kind of music? My answer is that it is honest music, music that doesn’t simplify the complex, doesn’t manipulate, doesn’t prompt a specific, ‘correct’ emotional and intellectual response. Saturday evening, The New York Philharmonic is doing the city a true service of goodwill by offering a free concert of Mahler, his ‘Resurrection’ Symphony. While I would have chosen the Sixth, I cannot quibble with their desire to present a work full of anguish as well as pleasure. The two works are perhaps opposite numbers, following similar paths but ending in very different places. There is nothing wrong with the living feeling a sense of triumph at having made it through. Musically, perhaps the greatest strenght of the work for this use is that it has a choir, and the sound of massed voices singing is one of the most deeply humane things in music. Trinity Wall Street is also hosting choral music, in five different concerts on Friday, all streaming live on The next afternoon, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus sings in a memorial for the FDNY at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and those not in attendance will be able to witness it via broadcast as well.

At home, listening in private, you will find what is right for you. WQXR will be streaming a listener curated playlist for the day and will be webcasting a Kent Tritle choral performance Friday at 7pm.. Do read Frank Rich’s piece in New York Magazine, and Joan Didion’s essential counterpoint to all the huffing and puffing of group-think and ignorance. There is also a DVD work from guitarist Marco Cappelli, a musical realization of Art Spiegelman’s great “In the Shadow of No Towers“. Spiegelman’s book expresses the horror, anguish and frustration that are the essential responses to 9/11, and he never bothers to try and resolve the unresolvable and the ongoing. There are also stories on other music being made for the commemoration.

But for New Yorkers, those who wish to be out amongst their fellow man, there is Music After, a winning marathon of personal responses and experiences; non-dogmatic, humane, real. America Opera Projects is presenting a free concert, 4pm, at the Irondale Community Center in Brooklyn. And there is also an event at the Metropolitan Museum which strikes me as something that might be the most personally meaningful: in the Temple of Dendur, Wordless Music is presenting a concert (free with Museum admission, and streaming live via this link starting at 3:30pm), featuring William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops. Basinski’s piece is an accidental one, the sound produced from the process of old magnetic tapes literally falling apart on each pass by the play head on a tape recorder. The composer says the project ended on the morning of 9/11. It’s a piece about physical decay, dissipation, the loss of records and memories. Ten years later, that’s what we have left.

UPDATED: Adding links to Rich and Didion.