Performance Saturday, April 30, 2011 | 8 PM

Music of Steve Reich

Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage
Carnegie Hall celebrates the 75th birthday of one of America’s greatest living composers with a concert that features three New York premieres of his recent works, including WTC 9/11, a Carnegie Hall co-commission. Plus, hear his Double Sextet—the piece that earned him a much-deserved Pulitzer Prize in 2009.
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The Program

STEVE REICH (b. 1936)

About the Composer  

It is no overstatement to declare that Steve Reich has changed the course of music. In the 1960s and ’70s, when highly academic, atonal, constantly varying, and rhythmically irregular compositions dominated the contemporary classical world, Reich introduced visceral works that unabashedly employed a persistent pulse and static harmonies that adhered to a specified modality. His reductive style was soon branded “minimalist,” but he preferred to characterize these early works as featuring the gradual unfolding of a process—whether it be “phasing” (the same musical line drifting in and out of synch between two instruments or tape loops), or an additive structure where notes incrementally replace rests.

Throughout the 1970s, non-Western music increasingly played a role in shaping Reich’s musical voice. He studied African drumming at the University of Ghana in 1970 (which confirmed his interest in interlocking, repetitive patterns) and studied Hebrew cantillation in New York and Jerusalem in 1976–1977 (which led to a lasting interest in setting text and highlighting the natural rhythms of speech). Contemporary jazz—specifically, the modal and harmonically static music of John Coltrane—was also fundamental in his stylistic development. At the same time, Reich’s music has always been shaped by his Western classical training, and he openly acknowledges the influence of such contrapuntal masters as Pérotin, Bach, Debussy, Bartók, and Stravinsky (notably omitting composers from the Classical or Romantic periods).

In the 1980s, Reich adopted more chromatic modalities and explored “speech melody,” creating musical lines from samples of recorded speech. His later compositions have also pursued an interest in his Jewish heritage and in the musical documentation of historical events and contemporary issues, as evidenced most clearly in the “documentary video operas” he created with video artist and wife Beryl Korot. Most recently, his music has tended to emphasize a compositional practice that has been significant for him throughout his career: writing not for “pre-established, ill-fitting ensembles,” but for unique instrumentation that encourages him to express his distinctive contrapuntal style. As he has remarked of late, “My instrumentation is my inspiration.”

Mallet Quartet (Commissioned by Palace of Arts, Budapest for the Amadinda Percussion Group; Stanford Lively Arts, Stanford University for Sō Percussion; NEXUS (Canada); and Synergy Percussion (Australia))

About the Music 

“In the time I’ve written a lot for percussion, the marimba has been growing,” Reich recently said, and the Mallet Quartet (2009) represents his first experience writing for five-octave marimba. As a result, the members of Sō Percussion, who co-commissioned the work, played a particularly important role in its creation: Reich would send them marimba passages to record and return by email so that he could find the right balance between pitch and timbre in the tricky low register. For a composer who has favored employing percussion throughout his career, the composition is a surprising first in another way: Scored for two vibraphones in addition to two of these marimbas, it is his only work for standard percussion quartet without keyboards or voices.

A Closer Listen 

Like many Reich works, the Mallet Quartet is organized into an uninterrupted three-section fast-slow-fast structure. In the outer sections, the marimbas supply a harmonic pad with a characteristic interlocking pulse, while the vibraphones provide lively and at times chromatically inflected melodies. The brief middle section is rare for Reich in its sparse texture, and, as the composer himself has written, may well contain “the most striking, and certainly the least expected” material in the piece.

WTC 9/11

In the Composer’s Own Words

In 2009, Kronos Quartet asked me for a piece using pre-recorded voices. My first idea was to elongate the speaker’s final vowels or consonants. Stop-action sound. Impossible in 1973, when I first thought of it. Possible in 2001, when Dolly was begun. In this piece, it was to be, and is, the means of connecting one person to another—harmonically.

I had no idea who was speaking. No subject matter. After several months, I finally remembered the obvious. For 25 years, we lived four blocks from the World Trade Center. On 9/11 we were in Vermont, but our son, granddaughter, and daughter-in-law were all in our apartment. Our phone connection stayed open for six hours, and our next-door neighbors were finally able to drive north out of the city with their family and ours. For us, 9/11 was not a media event.

By January 2010, several months after Kronos asked me for the piece, I realized the pre-recorded voices would be from 9/11. Specifically, they would start from publicly accessible recordings by NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) and the Fire Department, and then from interviews with former friends and neighbors who lived or worked in Lower Manhattan.

“WTC” is also an abbreviation for “World to Come,” as my friend composer David Lang pointed out. After 9/11, the bodies and parts of bodies were taken to the medical examiner’s office on the east side of Manhattan. In Jewish tradition, there is an obligation to guard the body from the time of death until burial. The practice, called Shmira, consists of sitting near the body and reciting Psalms or Biblical passages. The roots of the practice are, on one level, to protect the body from animals or insects, and on another, to keep the Neshama, or soul, company while it hovers over the body until burial. Because of the difficulties in DNA identification, this went on for seven months, 24/7. Two of the women who sat and recited Psalms are heard in the third movement. You also hear a cellist (who has sat Shmira elsewhere) and a cantor from a major New York City synagogue sing parts of Psalms and the Torah.

WTC 9/11 is in three movements (though the tempo remains unchanged throughout). The piece begins and ends with the first violin doubling the loud warning beep (actually an F) your phone makes when it is left off the hook. In the first movement, there are archived voices from NORAD air traffic controllers, alarmed that American Airlines Flight 11 was off course. This was the first plane to deliberately crash into the World Trade Center. The movement then shifts to the Fire Department’s archives of that day, telling what happened on the ground.

The second movement uses recordings I made in 2010 of neighborhood residents, an officer of the Fire Department, and the first ambulance driver (from Hatzalah volunteers) to arrive at the scene, remembering what happened nine years earlier. The third and last movement uses the voices of a neighborhood resident, two volunteers who took shifts sitting near the bodies, and the cellist-singer and cantor previously mentioned.

Throughout WTC 9/11, the strings double and harmonize the speech melodies and prolonged vowels or consonants of the recorded voices. You hear a total of three string quartets—one live, and two pre-recorded. The piece can also be played by three live quartets and pre-recorded voices.

WTC 9/11 is only 15 minutes long. While composing it, I often tried to make it longer, and each time it felt that extending its length reduced its impact. The piece wanted to be terse.


About the Music 

Reich has long been known for re-establishing a link between the popular and classical genres of music—one that has existed for centuries but seemed to be on hiatus in the post-war period—and 2x5 may be his most explicit effort in this vein. Acknowledging how Kurt Weill used a cabaret band in The Threepenny Opera, Reich borrows the instrumentation of a rock band for 2x5, employing two identical ensembles of two electric guitars, piano, electric bass, and drum. The piece even premiered as Bang on a Can shared a double-bill with the legendary German group Kraftwerk. Reich is quick to point out, however, that 2x5 is by no means “popular music,” as it relies on musical notation and on performers who have a thorough understanding of the classical idiom as well as rock. 

A Closer Listen 

From the outset of the work’s fast-slow-fast structure, the two ensembles “hocket,” constructing one musical line out of their alternating and interlocking parts. The bass and piano act as the main elements of the rhythm section throughout, with the drum set at times providing additional punch and color. The guitars tend to present more melodic material, often using digital effects to transpose their sound up an octave, but they never stray far from the strict rhythmic interplay of the other instruments.

Double Sextet 

About the Music 

Reich was initially skeptical of writing for eighth blackbird’s instrumentation, one that is traditionally associated with the modernist music he has for so long spurned. But after the open-minded players accepted his idea to write for a doubled version of the ensemble, he readily agreed, knowing that the duplicate instruments would befit his contrapuntal style. When eighth blackbird performed the infant Double Sextet at Carnegie Hall in 2008, they used pre-recorded tracks for the additional ensemble; tonight’s performance features all 12 instruments live.

A Closer Listen 

As in 2x5 and Mallet Quartet, Reich assigns some of the instruments in Double Sextet (the piano and vibraphones) to provide the harmonic grounding and rhythmic pulse, and appoints others (the winds and strings) to offer more sustained melodic lines. The seasoned Reich listener is likely to be surprised by the amount of harmonic motion in the work, as evidenced by the percussive alternations of chords and abrupt modulations that open the piece. While the slow middle movement provides some respite, the work is dominated by these tightly-wound, percussive patterns. As Reich has lightheartedly admitted, “It’s the kind of piece you would have expected me to write 20 years ago; it’s not what you generally expect from 70-year-olds.” May little change as he crests 75.

—Jacob Cooper

© 2011 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

This performance is part of The Originals.

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