Steve Reich’s WTC 9/11 (CD Review)

Revised cover artwork for Reich's new CD

Steve Reich

WTC 9/11, Mallet Quartet, Dance Patterns

Nonesuch CD

Now that we’ve gotten the cover art discussion out of the way – and Nonesuch has acquiesced to the concerns of those who felt the artwork exploitative and inflammatory – let’s consider the music on Steve Reich’s latest recording.

An interest found throughout Steve Reich’s output concerns spoken word recordings, which he has employed in a number of pieces, from his early phase compositions to his most recent multimedia works. One of his watershed pieces from the 1980s, “Different Trains,” was written for the Kronos Quartet.  It juxtaposes spoken word recordings detailing train travel in the US in the 1940s (Reich was frequently traveling from coast to coast to visit his estranged parents) with spoken word accounts of the treatment of deported victims of the Holocaust in transit to concentration camps.

“WTC 9/11” (2011), also for Kronos, employs similarly emotionally charged taped material, this time referencing the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers. Scored for three quartets (using overdubs), field recordings, and electronics, the piece’s outer sections are propelled by the jarring sound of a telephone’s “dead wire” signal, and also incorporate alarmed shouts of air traffic controllers and emergency first-responders. These are woven into the gestural fabric of the quartet’s music, which outlines each utterance with a melodic motif. Also incorporated are snippets of 2009 interviews with lower Manhattan residents, recalling their reactions to the tragedy and reflecting on how it has changed them.

The central passage is particularly evocative: the voices of Jewish officiants chanting and singing psalms over the remains of victims in the months following 9/11 interweaves with angst-filled sustained passages of string writing. One wishes that this area of the piece had been allowed more time to develop and register. Instead, Reich cuts it short, returning to the pensive and dramatically charged material of the opening to close out the work in portentous fashion.

In comparing it to its predecessor Different Trains, I would say that this piece takes a similar approach to the treatment of material. That said, its affect is entirely different. At around fifteen minutes long, “WTC 9/11” is a terser utterance than one might imagine as a response to an event with such far-reaching consequences. But in so crafting it, Reich has recaptured some of the blunt force trauma to our nation’s psyche in the days following the initial event. He’s also avoided some of the overt sentimentality that other artworks commemorating 9/11 have been unwilling to forgo.  It is this quality that gives “WTC 9/11” a potent dramatic heft that, though jarring at times, proves taut and unflinchingly eloquent.

Rhythmic drive and insistent pulsation underpin most of Reich’s music. A signature aspect of his style is the incorporation of polyrhythms, which he learned from his studies of African drumming. Reich has created a number of pieces for percussion ensembles or featuring percussion as a strong component. But the Mallet Quartet (2009) is a nod towards the continuing evolution of pitched percussion instruments; it’s his first work to incorporate the largest member of the mallet family: the five-octave marimba. Two of these populate the piece with layers of ostinato repetitions and thrumming, resonant bass thwacks. Meanwhile, two vibraphones supply shimmering chords and sustained lines. The piece juxtaposes these forces of wood and metal, pulsation and sustain, demonstrating that these two instruments can provide abundant variety and color. Engaging in nimble interplay, So Percussion’s rendition of this piece is informed by their years-long association with Reich’s music; they’ve also release an excellent rendition of his earlier work Drumming. When I saw them perform Mallet Quartet live at Carnegie Hall, they did so from memory. This intimate and comprehensive knowledge of the piece is reflected in its authoritative recording.

Reich himself appears, as part of the Steve Reich and Musicians ensemble, in the recording of Dance Patterns (2002). It was originally written for Ictus to accompany Thierry de Mey’s film Counterphrases of Anne Terese de Keersmaeker’s Choreography. Here, mallet instruments are joined by pianos. While the limpid counterpoint and fulsome polyrhythms found in the Mallet Quartet prevails here, the addition of concert grands adds richness to the harmonies; some of the piano writing takes on a positively jazzy cast. Vibrant and accessible, it may not be a watershed work like his pieces for Kronos, but it’s the perfect way to introduce Reich to a new audience. Maybe a passel of foreign film buffs will catch the minimalist bug!

Dustin O’Halloran: Lumiere (CD Review)

Dustin O’Halloran
Fat Cat Records CD

It seems fitting, in a way, that pianist and composer Dustin O’Halloran calls Los Angeles home. His post-classical instrumental compositions are frequently evocative in a fashion that’s also come to be associated with (good) film music: atmospheric, melodically direct, and capable of expressing a wide range of emotions. And even though O’Halloran has become active as a film composer in recent years, scoring An American Affair and the upcoming Like Crazy (out in October), he remains involved in creating music separate from images that’s equally involving.

Lumiere, O’Halloran’s debut for the Fat Cat imprint, is some of his most arresting music to date. With sterling support from Jóhann Jóhannsson, who handles engineering and mixing duties and contributes electronics to the proceedings, as well as members of the American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME) recording the string parts, O’Halloran crafts more intricate arrangements than those found on previous albums. While elaborations don’t inherently enhance, here they allow O’Halloran’s piano to become one texture among many, a percussive foil for richly layered strings and synths. Passages reminiscent of Francophone neoclassicism, variously recalling Satie’s Gymnopedies and Parisian waltzes, as well stretches bell-tinged minimalism, are frequently present in this collection of compelling compositions. Here’s hoping that O’Halloran will be able to maintain both scoring and non-programmatic creation in the rotation for a long time to come.

Christian Carey sings … Philip Glass?

Back in 1992, I sang in violinist Paul Festa’s recital at Juilliard. I was part of a quartet that sang “Knee Play 4″ from Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach. Paul even got us an audience with the composer himself. We travelled downtown and sang the piece for Philip Glass at his home. He was very helpful, offering several suggestions and even playing the piano for us.

I came across this video of the performance, taken at the recital. The most startling thing, besides seeing myself singing on YouTube, was seeing an earlier incarnation of myself that had a full head of hair!

Aaron Siegel: new recording on Lockstep (review)

Aaron Siegel
Science is Only a Sometime Friend
Lockstep Records (CD/Digi)

Mantra Percussion recently recorded Aaron Siegel’s Science is Only a Sometime Friend for his Lockstep imprint. The version that appears here, a single, continuously played forty minute long piece for eight glockenspiels and organ, is somewhat different from the original conception of the piece. In its outdoor live version, passersby were invited to contribute improvisatory additions on extra instruments (one can see examples of this on YouTube).

While the studio version may not capture the delightful aleatory of its sister conception, it is a strong piece in its own right. Siegel certainly owes a debt to minimalism, in particular to works by Steve Reich such as Music for Mallet Instruments and the more recent Mallet Quartet. It shares an affinity with some of the drone partials of works byLa Monte Young and even the upper harmonics employed in certain spectral works as well.

But it also channels more recent innovations. It’s tintinnabular halo of overlapping glockenspiel lines take on more futuristic timbres, at turns mimicking micro-polyphonic synthesis and the homemade instruments of Tristan Perich. Indeed, this is music that is less about repetition as pulsating ostinato and more about its ability to create resonant accumulations, sonic washes, that gradually morph. It’s an elegantly shaped and often beguiling sound world. While Siegel’s view of Science as a fair weather companion is a common one in our skeptical era, there’s no doubting that the supple organicism of this work, outdoors or on the hi-fi, is well nigh irresistible.

Signal performs Glassworks live (CD Review)

Glassworks: Live at Le Poisson Rouge

Conducted by Brad Lubman
Featuring Michael Riesman
Orange Mountain Music CD

In some respects, it’s hard to believe that it has taken thirty years for Philip Glass’ Glassworks to be performed live in its entirety in New York City. Then again, this work is demanding, both technically and in terms of endurance. But Signal’s April 2010 performance at Le Poisson Rouge of pianist, keyboardist, and Glass collaborator Michael Riesman’s arrangement of the piece for live forces is worth the wait. It’s also an excellent way to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the  Glassworks studio recording; a release that further cemented its composer’s reputation as an artist capable of crossing over and achieving recognition with mainstream audiences.

And while I treasure my copy of the original recording, in some respects this live rendition reveals aspects of the piece one might have missed the first time around. First of all, it sounds terrific (kudos to Hector Castillo for a finely tuned mix!). Credit must also go to Riesman for his sensitive recreation of the score, which renders it with clarity. Riesman and Signal perform said document with buoyancy, creating vibrant rather than motoric effects with Glass’ myriad ostinati. This is even true (perhaps especially so) in Glassworks’ companion piece on the disc, the inexorably process-driven, yet here lithely grooving, Music in Similar Motion. Conductor Brad Lubman urges the ensemble to shape phrases supply rather than angularly, and this prevents the scores’ repetitions from feeling “repetitive:” instead, they mesmerize.

This is a CD that Glass devotees will adore, but also an excellent one to play first to convert the anti-minimalist naysayers among their friends. Recommended.

“Reich on Reich”

Steve Reich turns 75 this coming October, and the celebrations have already begun. Later this month is a concert at Carnegie Hall on 4/30. It features the Kronos Quartet in a new piece commemorating a more sombre anniversary: WTC 9/11.

In the lead up to the Carnegie concert, there will likely be countless interviews, features, etc.; but this YouTube video is a terrific five-minute distillation of Reich’s interests, influences, and musical style.

I love the segue early on from bebop ii-V-I changes to Steve Reich’s pulsating ostinati.

Stuart Deaver Talks Torke, Plays Adams in Princeton

Stuart Deaver, a professor of piano at the University of Tulsa, is visiting Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey this week. On Thursday, February 10 at 11:30am in Talbott 1, he will present a lecture entitled “Musical Equivalency of Alphabetical Order in Michael Torke’s Telephone Book” at MCHaT Forum.

On Friday, February 11 at 7:30pm, Dr. Deaver will perform a piano recital on campus in Bristol Chapel. The program includes John Adams’ China Gates and Phrygian Gates, as well as works by Mozart and Portuguese composer Vianna da Motta. The recital is free and open to the public.