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!

Randy Newman Songbook, Vol. 2 (CD Review)

Randy Newman

The Randy Newman Songbook, Vol. 2

Nonesuch CD

Randy Newman has gained acclaim for his Hollywood film scores, which deploy full orchestrations alongside his singing and piano-playing. His studio albums have featured similar instrumental line-ups, something that’s given his pop a classy sheen that’s served as something of an ironic foil for the ofttimes biting satire of his lyrics. It’s refreshing to hear the songs from Newman’s pop canon in a stripped down setting: you’ll hardly miss the strings!

In this, the second Nonesuch release on which Newman performs his best known songs solo, with only a grand piano for company, one learns or is reminded of, several things about the artist at this stage of his career. First, he’s still a mighty fine piano player, shuffling through mid tempo rags and drawing forth imaginative voicings in a style that may at times sound deceptively simple, but is anything but simplistic. A supple sense of timing is omnipresent, and Newman’s use of articulation and a wide dynamic range help to remind one of the instruments featured in the original recordings of these songs. Newman’s voice has always been a distinctive one; expressive rather than “pretty.” And if it’s lost a fair amount of the limited lilt it had when he was younger, and if a few high notes strain more than they used to, it’s still remarkable to hear the characters his singing calls forth, and the way that he can inhabit a song.

This CD’s been in the stereo quite a bit this summer. And one of the marks of its durability is the amount of times tracks have been repeated to get a second listen to a particularly fetching rendition. Those who suggest that Newman’s songbook has too many similar-sounding entries need to listen more carefully; there’s a lot going on above those shuffles; both musical and lyrical nuances. Hearing him perform the songs in this intimate setting underscores their vitality.

Björk’s new “Crystalline” Video + Biophilia 12″ vinyl series

A video for Björk’s new song “Crystalline” was released on Tuesday. It’s part of Biophilia, her ambitious new recording/multimedia app project for Nonesuch.

Also announced was a 12″ vinyl series featuring variations on the music from Biophilia.

Debut of Artwork for Steve Reich’s WTC 9/11 CD

Steve Reich WTC 9/11: out 9/6/11

 

I heard Kronos Quartet perform Steve Reich’s WTC 9/11 (2010) earlier this year at Carnegie Hall. For three string quartets (two were overdubbed in this live performance) and recorded voices taken from phone calls by first responders on September 11, 2001, as well as interviews with New Yorkers some years later, it doesn’t serve as a nostalgic remembrance. Rather, it’s a dramatic whirlwind of a piece, at times bracing and overwhelming.

For those who’ve tired of the languid sentimentality and unfortunate jingoism that has too often been attached to  9/11 by those who’ve been witnesses from a distance, Reich’s response is an affecting tribute, both to those lost and to the New Yorkers left behind. I’m glad that its recording will see release near the 10 year anniversary of September 11, 2001.

The release also include So Percussion performing Reich 2009 Mallet Quartet and Reich and Musicians performing Dance Patterns (2002).

Thanks to Nonesuch for letting us debut the CD’s artwork.

I mentioned the following on the Sequenza 21 homepage:

One thing I’d point out is that, in the pop world, artwork is routinely debuted on a website prior to a CD’s release. Nonesuch is a label that releases both classical and pop CDs. So, this isn’t that unusual a practice for them.

They asked Sequenza 21 to release the artwork instead of, say, Pitchfork or Stereogum, because our readership is more likely to be interested in a new Steve Reich CD than the average Pitchfork reader.

Now, whether the art is “in good taste” or not is certainly up to debate and I’m glad we’re discussing that here in the comments. My one suggestion: if you hear the piece, which is very disturbing and visceral, you might view the cover differently. Does the cover make me uncomfortable? Yes. But then, so does Reich’s piece.
So do Different Trains and Come Out. Relevant artwork, topical artwork, is risky; sometimes it makes us uncomfortable. But like Reich’s aforementioned earlier works, I think that WTC 9/11 has something meaningful to say.

Chris Thile & Michael Daves: Sleep with One Eye Open (CD Review)

Chris Thile & Michael Daves

Sleep with One Eye Open

Nonesuch CD

Chris Thile is best known for his work as vocalist and virtuoso mandolinist with the bands Punch Brothers and Nickel Creek. And while his fancy finger work frequently dazzles, he’s been criticized in the past for allowing the production values imposed on his music to have to glitzy a sheen: blunting the “authentic-sounding” quality that connoisseurs often prize in traditional music-making. But his recently collaboration with guitarist and vocalist Michael Daves restores a sense of folksiness, grit, and yes, authenticity to the proceedings.Daves is a wonderful foil for Thile. His stomping grounds are in Brooklyn, but his sound is a spot-on reanimation of old-time Nashville. Ironically, the recording takes place in that very city, in a new studio with vintage equipment – Jack White’s Third Man studios.

The concept for the album is beautifully simple. Thiles and Daves went into Third Man and, in four days, recorded all sixteen of the album’s cuts: traditional songs and material by beloved Bluegrass icons such as Flatt and Scruggs. Just two guys standing toe to toe, playing with youthful energy and nimble virtuosity and singing their hearts out.  No backing band, no overdubs: none necessary.

In an era of glitzy presentation and overproduction, of far too many cooks spoiling an often thinly appointed stew, Sleep with One Eye Open is an object lesson on how to do it right. Recommended.

Laurie Anderson: “Flow” (Soundcloud/DL)

Congratulations to Laurie Anderson on her Grammy nomination for the song “Flow” (Best Pop Instrumental Performance). It’s the last track on Homeland, her latest Nonesuch release.

The label’s been kind enough to offer “Flow” for stream or download via Soundcloud.




Laurie Anderson – “Flow” by Nonesuch Records

Indaba announces winners of 2×5 Remix Contest

Indaba Music has announced the winners of the Steve Reich 2×5 Remix Contest.

As one of the judges of the competition (along with Mr. Reich), let me offer my congratulations to the winner – Dominique Leone – and runners-up: Vakula and David Minnick.

I’d also like to congratulate the rest of the entrants. Selecting the winner was a very difficult process: the pool of remixes from which to choose was excellent!

Below are the winners’ remixes. Enjoy!

Folds/Hornby collaborate on new CD (review)

Ben Folds and Nick Hornby
Lonely Avenue
Nonesuch CD

Nick Hornby has written eloquently about pop songs in the novel High Fidelity and the essay collection Songbook. But what happens when he tries his hand at being a lyricist? On Lonely Avenue, his first musical collaboration with singer-songwriter Ben Folds, Hornby makes the leap convincingly, suggesting that he belongs in the musical realm not just as an astute commentator, but as a full-fledged participant.

Of course, it certainly helps that Hornby’s lyrics are married to eloquent, often poignant, music by Folds. Indeed, Lonely Avenue is his most musically ambitious and wide-ranging effort to date; yet it’s uniformly distinguished. Perhaps in response to the rich lyrical terrain he has before him, Folds incorporates a number of stylistic inflections this time out, from savvily arranged seventies pop to undulating minimalism and from sensitive balladry to brash piano punk.

The CD contains at least three “single-worthy” cuts: “Doc Pomus,” “Picture Window,” and “From Above.” Folds’ piano-playing is as supple as ever – he cooks up some brilliant flourishes on “Doc Pomus” and rocks out with abandon on “Your Dogs.” The arrangements highlight Folds’ piano, but also feature strings and effervescent instrumental contributions and backing vocals from the indie pop duo Pomplamoose.

While one hopes that Hornby doesn’t quit writing compelling stories and cultural criticism anytime soon, he’s welcome to keeping work as a lyricist in the rotation!


Steve Reich 2×5 Remix Contest

Steve Reich

Remixers start your … laptops. Some hot-off-the-presses news about a contest beginning at noon TODAY!

Pulitzer Prize–winning composer Steve Reich, Nonesuch Records, and Indaba Music have launched a search for collaborators to remix the third movement from Reich’s 2×5. Paired with his Pulitzer prizewinning Double Sextet, the work appears on Reich’s new Nonesuch CD.

For four weeks beginning October 12, 2010 at noon, remixers can visit Indaba’s website to create their own version of the movement.

From November 9 to 23, fans and a panel of judges including Reich will review the submissions. Winners will be announced on December 7th. In addition to a grand prize and 2 runners-up selected by the jury, 10 honorable mentions will be selected by the public.

All jury selections will receive prizes, as follows:

Grand Prize (1)

$500

Signed copy of Double Sextet/2×5 CD

Signed copy of Double Sextet score

One-year free Platinum membership to Indabamusic.com

Runners-Up (2)

Signed copy of Double Sextet/2×5 CD

Signed copy of Double Sextet score

3-month Platinum membership to Indabamusic.com

Honorable Mentions (10)

Signed copy of Double Sextet/2×5 CD

Signed copy of Double Sextet score

3-month Pro memberships to Indabamusic.com

__________________________________________________________

Written for the Bang on a Can All Stars2×5 is Reich’s most overt foray into rock instrumentation to date. In my preview of the album, I noted that Reich’s collaboration with BoaC was “An intergenerational summit – minimalist elder statesman meets post-minimal/totalist ace performers – that, in terms of importance, is more or less the Downtown version of Duke Ellington and John Coltrane.”

Now, another layer of creators will season the mix – I’m excited to hear the results!