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Reich Drive

Last week while driving solo up to The Newman Compound (trademark pending, JM) I made the most of the long trip by finally listening to some pieces I purchased a few weeks ago in a flurry of iTunes Store activity. It was a random selection of this and that … a bunch of David Lang chamber works, some Evan Ziporyn pieces, an arrangement of Björk with the percussionist Evelyn Glennie … stuff like that. But it was the piece at the end of the “Recently Added” playlist which wrapped it’s arms around me in a late-night embrace of brilliance. On those country roads, as I tooled north, I heard Steve Reich’s new masterwork, You Are (Variations).

I purchased the recording really knowing nothing about it, other than it was a fairly new work, premiered only a year or so ago, in LA, and that it will be part of the big “Steve Reich at 70″ festival B&H put together this for Fall. It’s just crazy how fast this stuff comes out. Reich writes a piece, and Nonesuch records it—seems like instantly.

It’s not like I can actually write a review of a Reich work, because there’s never really anything to criticize. He’s just that good. One of those guys who is simply incapable of composing junk. Not every piece is a masterpiece, of course, but they’re all at least good. Now, if he wrote a bad piece, that would be something to write about. And now, at 70, like the unending Elliot Carter (98), he actually seems to be getting better.

All the (now usual, but always comforting) Reich elements are there in this piece, but somehow this one develops more for me than other recent works … the rhythms jerk and twist in surprising ways, and the counterpoint seems more intense and complex than in other pieces from the last few years. The colors change more frequently, as well, driven by a bunch of marimba/vibes stacks balanced with pianos. Those things are like glorious mallet/keyboard engines, pushing the piece faster and faster up a hill. The piece simply grooves like crazy.

The similarity to Tehillim (really, just the Best Piece Ever), is striking, but I think that’s only a good thing. It invites comparison, but little suffers from it. In fact, the English text in two of the movements might be the only unsettling element…in Tehillim, the piece is entirely in Hebrew (a language I can read, and yet not understand a word of, thanks to modern secularized Jewish education). When all that Hebrew is grooving, I mean, who knows (or cares) what they’re singing about? I know the gist, of course, but the foreign tongue forces a removal, keeps it from getting too close to reality. All that repeated, abstracted text becomes just another layer in the counterpoint, rather than an element of drama and shape. And that’s always been one of the cool attractions about Reich’s vocal music—so much of it is masquerading as instrumental parts. For that reason, I find the fact that I can occasionally understand what the singers are singing about in You Are to be slightly disturbing, and so the movements with the Hebrew texts (especially the second) work best for me.

And we’ve certainly come a long way from “phasing.” The counterpoint is rich and surprising, and the arc is determined by nothing other than drama and pacing. There’s no external forces imposed on this music. It’s just about the text, and the flow of the piece. And despite what people have been saying about this stuff for the past 30 years, it’s not “mechanized,” or “soul-less,” or “ambient”, or any of those awful adjectives. In fact it’s the opposite; this is music full of life and human energy, requiring extremes of musical emotion to put across. I recall a Ned Rorem quote I came across at some point, probably from one of the books (paraphrased of course): One should play Debussy like Bach, and Bach like Debussy. Well, exactly. The best performances of “exacting” and rhythmically precise music are the extremely musical ones.

While at B&H day-jobbing years back, one day the MIDI mockup of the Triple Quartet came in, and made the rounds around the office. It was awful. I mean, just stunning. If it was a regular submission, we would have filed it after a good laugh. And yet, that piece, when brought to life with the quartet and the tape part, is moving and gorgeous. Reich just does not translate to anything other than real people, playing instruments and singing, often joyfully. His is purely human stuff.

And this performance from the Los Angeles Master Chorale doesn’t disappoint. It’s crystal clear and balanced perfectly, with superb musicality, especially from the percussionists. The piece shines in this recording. On the last track, though, I’m of two minds … as Nonesuch tacked on Cello Counterpoint (played well by many Maya Beisers) at the end of the CD. It’s a fine work in and of itself, but after the meatiness of You Are, it comes off as more than a little disappointing—like a weak afterthought.

When I heard my first Reich, I was 17, and a student at Tanglewood. Of course, someone put on the Different Trains CD, that recording for the ages, with Kronos, and Pat Metheny playing Electric Counterpoint. I think my brain exploded. All decisions toward writing music for the rest of my life were confirmed, and I had a lifelong friend in his music. This was a new world to me, and a wholly new way of fusing music with meaning. Years later, at another Tanglewood summer, while lounging outside Ozawa Hall, waiting for the start of a live performance of Different Trains, my companion (new to Reich, and a writer) said a mouthful while perusing the program’s linear transcription of the interview-text so integral to the piece: “Oh! He’s a poet, too.”


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