Steve Reich: Double Sextet/2×5

eighth blackbird/Bang on a Can

Nonesuch Records

Last evening, the eagerly awaited release of SR’s newest album became available on MP3 and I downloaded it. I’m going to begin with a disclaimer: I already know both works very well, and have heard at least three performances of Double Sextet through the wonders of the Interwebs, at least one of which involved 12 live musicians (rather than a sextet performing against prerecorded tape of itself, which is how both works on this album were recorded). So part of my interest in downloading the new album was to see if there were any differences, and if the overall recording quality was better. To cut to the chase, yes, these performances are somewhat different from what I’ve previously heard and come to know well. More on that in a bit.

The big attraction on this album, presumably, is Double Sextet. This is the piece that won SR a long-overdue Pulitzer, and even if it isn’t as strong or as notable as some earlier works like Drumming or Music for 18 Musicians, Double Sextet is still a very notable work. I’d gradually greeted each new Reich release over the years with a greater lack of enthusiasm. His works seemed all to be variations on 1-2 pieces written many years ago, most notably Sextet (which beget Nagoya Marimbas, You Are (Variations), and a few others. But Reich started to get back to his idea of playing multiples of the same instrument against one another using prerecorded tapes, which goes all the way back to his early phase works. If you add some more edgy rhythms and variants of the “usual Reichian harmonies,” you end up with recent works like Mallet Quartet, Dance Patterns and the two works on this album. In other words, Reich’s more recent works are quite worth listening to, and still work after repeated listenings. The last minutes of Double Sextet are amazing, at least in my opinion, and get developed a bit more in 2×5.

A lot (too much, probably) has been made of how Reich has turned to rock instrumentation for 2×5. Personally, I think this is ludicrous. Reich has composed for electric guitar in the past, and the music of 2×5 transcends any perceived gimmickry. In other words, this isn’t a crossover album or pandering to a rock crowd. 2×5 is a really good piece. There’s nothing particularly unexpected in the work, if you’ve heard Double Sextet, but it builds upon it. I think it’s a very strong piece, one I like very much.

As to the performances, I’m biased, but I think the three performances (all of which were by eighth blackbird, as well as one with eighth blackbird together with the Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble) I’ve heard previously seem more animated, enthusiastic and exciting than the studio recording of Double Sextet. I suspect part of this comes from the differences between performing live and melding things together in a studio; live recordings may have more energy. So while I like this recording (and the recording of 2×5 is also good, but less animated than the concert performance I’ve heard), I actually prefer the streams of live performances even if the audio quality is a bit better on the Nonesuch release.

The liner notes are okay, and include an interesting interview with SR.

So if you’re a Reich fan, buy this album (download it-it’s better for the environment). If you’re not a Reich fan, download it anyway since I think it’s better than much of Reich’s recent work, and goes in a bit of a different direction (this isn’t your father’s Steve Reich album).

6 Responses to “two recent works by steve reich”
  1. I totally agree regarding the “Double Sextet” performances. I was surprised, but I most definitely prefer the live recording of DS with 8bb and the Oberlin players. There is a really noticeable energy “gulf” between them, even though sonically this new one is more “polished.” I found my attention flagging in the new studio recording in a way it doesn’t for a moment in the 8bb/Oberlin one.

  2. Steve Layton says:

    I used to have a Radio Netherlands transcription LP, with an early live Dutch performance of “Music for a Large Ensemble”. To me the sound and energy of that perf was vastly superior to the studio version.

  3. David Toub says:

    Steve, I had the same recording-it was longer than the subsequent commercially recorded version on ECM, had more energy and I think the balance was better as well. The applause at the end also helped. That’s still my favorite recording of MFLE.

  4. Dean Rosenthal says:

    Not exactly a glowing review – why would you recommend this CD to anyone other than the Steve Reich completist, David? Aside from your opinion that it’s “better than much of Reich’s recent work” and “goes in a bit of a different direction”.

  5. Phil Scott says:

    I think I’ll buy the CD until downloads have asa good sound quality, the environment notwithstanding.

  6. david toub says:

    Dean-for the reasons I said. Not his greatest work but still likable. What’s wrong with likable?

    Phil: I haven’t bought a CD in many years, listen to tons of new music all the time, and have yet to notice any difference even in side-to-side comparisons. Maybe you are among the five people alive who can hear a difference. I can’t. Most folks can’t. Downloads are much better for the environment too. I can’t wait until the CD is extinct. It really is already but many people can’t let go yet. Just like those who clung to the LP in the late 80’s. How’d that work out?

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