Originally published by The Silent Ballet, 17 December 2006
New York– I recently read an article about a Zen Buddhist practitioner whose teacher would often encourage him to reflect on the nature of sound. The teacher would strike a bell, be mindful of the creation of a noise, and mindful as it faded out, eventually vanishing into nothing. “Do you hear the no-sound?” To many, this sounds like merely a throw-away question, a useless Koan. I was reminded of this listening to the music of Steve Reich, and also found it an appropriate metaphor for our lives. We are created by conditions, cultivated, grow, and eventually fade into nothing, with only the residual effects of our interactions living on in the emerging ‘sound’ of others. A piece will begin with only a pulse, seemingly randomly, but slowly evolves and grows. Reich’s work, as suggested by a critic, holds up a mirror, showing us our thoughts, experiences, lives, indeed our very way of being. It causes us to be aware of listening, engaged in a way few pieces of art can do. Most music is passive, background music. Listening to Reich, on the contrary, is like reading a book. The experience becomes subjective; depending on where one’s attention lies, the sculpture of sound shifts, as we become aware (and simultaneously unaware) of other phases and overlying harmonies. As a result of the phases, counterpoints, time signature changes, and overlays of them all, the listener is seemingly hearing melodies and patterns that no musician is actually playing.
I learned of the Reich @ 70 event when looking through upcoming events in a Lincoln Center mailing. In honor of Reich’s 70th birthday, on October 3rd, several of the most important cultural institutions in New York hosted Reich @ 70, with performances at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, and the Whitney Museum. Reich has certainly come along way from his days playing in obscure galleries and lofts. These performances include interactive ‘discovery days,’ where participants discuss Reich’s music and theory, recreate Clapping Music (1972), and even meet the composer himself. Most importantly, several performances of Reich’s most important works are taking place, being performed by those he wrote them for or by his own group, as well as the US premier of his latest, “Daniel Variations.” Mainstream audiences may not be aware of this fact, but over the last 40+ years his music has permeated the way we understand music, more influential than even John Cage.
On Saturday, October 21, 2006, I attended a performance at Carnegie Hall of three of Reich’s best known works. The show was absolutely transcendent. Reich music has a hypnotic quality, completely trance inducing, yet familiar and natural. His work captures the sound between sound, and forces the listener to meditate on how we think and perceive, and truly challenges what music is, while at the same time tapping into ancient rhythms and pulses.The show began with Pat Metheny playing a piece which Reich wrote for him almost 20 years ago, called Electric Counterpoint, in which the guitarist plays a solo piece over tracks he has prerecorded, 10 guitars and 2 bass guitar. The phase evolves slowly, and because of the phase relation and slight changes in key and time signature, it is strangely ambiguous and swells like the tide. In the final of the 3 movements (fast, slow, fast) the time signature is shifting between 3/2 and 12/8, and between C minor and E minor, creating a phase as sets of 3 and 4 interlock. Watching Pat Metheny perform was a treat in itself, as he stood in the center of Carnegie Halls’ biggest stage, looking the part of the rock star, his long hair wild and with his feet apart, his guitar hanging off of him, yet playing a flawless piece written for a virtuoso. I’d say he was the most impressive opening act I’d ever seen. It would be hard to imagine anyone topping that performance, and I certainly wouldn’t want to go on after such a brilliant rendition. Knowing that he was to be followed by the Kronos Quartet, I suspended judgment temporarily, and I was of course not disappointed.
Different Trains (1988) was written specifically for Kronos, Reich’s first piece for a string quartet. The work evokes America before the War, Europe during the War, and After the War (as per the movement titles). Reich uses the piece to examine his early childhood train rides across America, knowing now as an adult that if he had been in Europe, as a Jew, he would have been riding very different trains. He uses a series of taped vocal segments, recorded by himself interviewing his Nanny, as well as Holocaust survivors his own age. The pitch of the voices determined what he wrote for the Quartet, as they echo the tape segments, all integrated with noises from American and European trains from the ’30’s and ’40’s. The evolution of the sound, as well as the ideas and meanings found in the words themselves, is breathtaking to witness. Reich’s music sums up the mood and feeling of those times in a way that no book, film, or photograph is capable of doing.
Finally, Steve Reich and Musicians played his classic and groundbreaking work, Music For 18 Musicians (1976), with special guest Synergy Vocals. There’s little I could say about Music For 18 that hasn’t already been said, and the hour long epic was as beautiful to watch as to hear. Reich and two of his co-performers simultaneously played the same Marimba for 5 minutes, one of the players facing the instrument upside-down, and none with sheet music. Despite this, they didn’t miss a note. It was also incredible to watch, as Pulse, the first movement, runs through the 11 chords which make up the work, and each subsequent movement works off of one of those chords, finally progressing through all 11, and resolving the chord progression with a satisfying resolution. The length of the initial 11 chords is determined by the breath of the bass clarinetist, and the other clarinetist, strings, and vocalists follow his lead. Simultaneously, the marimbas and pianos are creating a pulsing phase which creates so many sub melodies and overtones it’s hard to believe that Music For 18 is entirely acoustic, and that no digital or analog effects are employed. The vibraphonist also acts as a sort of internal conductor, as he played his melody only once, in advance to cue the others for the chord-change, creating not only interesting harmony, but also freeing western music from the need for an outside, non-performing conductor. Reich picked up this technique from West African and Balinese drum music, where the gamelan or master drummer cues changes. The four of us were all left in awe, trapped in contemplation as we slowly shuffled down the staircase from the balcony, in what now seemed less like descending a staircase, and more like walking-meditation.