in: Reviews

March 14, 2012

Big Bang for the Buck with Reich, Bang on a Can


Steve Reich does "Clapping Music" (Stephanie Mitchell photo)

We have been attending new-music concerts for over 40 years now, but we were not prepared for the scene that we encountered on March 10, when Bang on a Can All-Stars performed, among other things, a mini-retrospective on the work of Steve Reich, with a pre-concert talk by The Man Himself. Now in the second year of a three-year residency at MIT, Bang on a Can (the shorter name is for the presenting/commissioning unit, the longer one for the performing ensemble. Some New York tax lawyer must have set that system up) has obviously developed a cult-like following. By 6:05 pm, when we arrived at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium, a substantial crowd has already assembled for the 6:30 talk — enough that multiple lines had formed and one could appreciate the efficiency of the ticketing and ushering staff. By the time the talk began, the hall, which seats over 1,200, was at least four-fifths full. By the concert itself an hour later, it was stuffed to the nonexistent rafters — a total sell-out of the best possible kind.

Reich, now in his 76th year but remarkably youthful (in more ways than one, as we will demonstrate below), gave one of those oral-program-notes interviews with BOACAS music director Julia Wolfe on the three works of his that filled the post-intermission half of the program: Clapping Music, Electric Counterpoint, and 2×5. There were some tidbits of note, though we doubt they came as revelations to the fan base: Clapping Music was inspired by a flamenco performance; Pat Metheny, for whom Electric Counterpoint was written, insisted that his live part consist only of single notes (an injunction Reich disregarded only for a bit of the final movement). We’ll integrate other of Reich’s remarks in the individual discussions farther down the page.

The opening half of the program was given to the first performance of a collective work-in-progress called Field Recordings, funded by Bang on a Can itself and through its People’s Commissioning Fund, and also the Barbican Centre in London. The idea is for composers to create works based on audio and video, either pre-existing or purpose-recorded “in the wild.” This performance featured the first nine of these works: Wolfe’s Reeling, based on the sounds of country fiddling and its vocal accompaniment; Florent Ghys’s An Open Cage, setting a reading by John Cage from his Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse); Christian Marclay’s Fade to Slide, with a video gallimaufry stylistically reminiscent of Kenneth Anger; Mira Calix’s Meeting You Seemed Easy, on recordings taken aboard an airplane; David Lang’s Unused Swan, set to the sounds of knives being sharpened (Is that a reference to Carmina Burana we detected?); Evan Ziporyn’s Wargasari on a 1928 recording of Balinese singing and instrumentals; Michael Gordon’s Gene Takes a Drink, a cat’s-eye view of an urban garden; Tyondai Braxton’s Casino Trem, on the sounds of… guess what? and Nick Zammuto’s Real Beauty Turns, with video clips of mostly self-inflicted personal beautification operations culled from commercials and movies.

These nine works were played by the All-Stars group, comprising Ziporyn on clarinet and bass clarinet, Mark Stewart on guitars, Vicky Chow on piano and electronic keyboards, with cellist Ashley Bathgate, contrabassist Robert Black, and percussionist David Cossin. Zammuto, on electric guitar, joined in for his own piece. The pieces were taken together as a suite, with as little pause between them as the machinations of the technology permitted. Because there were so many of them (and they were not miniatures by any means), and because the house lights were too low to permit extensive note-taking, we can only give a few impressions. Overall, the composers’ musical responses to these “found object” sources were sophisticated and sensitive; we were especially impressed by Ghys’s brilliant prosody, eventually hitting every syllable and inflection in Cage’s voice with an appropriate musical equivalent. The video settings were all interesting — and we are extremely curious how Gordon managed to obtain the cooperation of his videographer — but they were of varying degrees of musical success. Many of the images in Marclay’s Fade to Slide had musical connections, and the most successful, whatever the subject, had a strong percussive feel. The other pieces all had strong points: Lang’s Unused Swan, for example, begins with a strongly evocative chorale-like melody in monophony and ends with a clever percussive use of chains sliding around and dropped on a metal sheet.

Musically, the contributions were mostly coming from the same place, with a greater stylistic affinity to smooth jazz than hard rock, but all obviously part of the evolving minimalist texture. That’s probably an oversimplification, but that was the surface impression. Wolfe’s Reeling, with country tropes turned in hand like cubist imagery, was therefore a bit of a ruse. The performances were all of a high order, although Chow’s visible frustration when technology failed her keyboard in one piece serves as a reminder that the art of musicianship often depends on a player’s exercising full control of his or her medium. This project bids fair to produce some exciting and original repertoire, although its successful dissemination may be hindered if, as here, the technical team must always far exceed the performing forces in number.

There was no question but that Steve Reich was the headliner for this event, and so the second half of this rather long program —a solid three hours — walked the audience through “The Story So Far,” beginning with the 1972 Clapping Music, which Reich and Cossin performed. This early work showcases a fairly pure minimalist esthetic, in which one player holds a fixed rhythm (hardly monotonous, as the “tune” is relatively complex) while the other periodically goes one beat out of phase, thus bringing the two lines together at fixed intervals. The striking thing about the piece, no pun intended,  and the performance, in which both participants would signal changes with nods and other body language — is how clearly it progresses and achieves something like cadential section closings. For a piece of minimalist music using minimal performance resources (the only four-hand piece we know of that requires no, you know, instruments), it is a well-saturated experience.

Electric Counterpoint, from 1987, was one of Reich’s earliest works in which he consciously sought to break down the walls the 20th century had erected between classical and popular music. In it, the guitarist has pre-recorded 10 tracks that serve as the accompaniment to the live performance. The original Metheny recording of the work, which like many later Reich works is broken into three attached movements marked Fast-Slow-Fast, is available on online streaming services, so you can check it out, as well as one or two others. Lest anyone think that interpretation is irrelevant in minimalism, we give thumbs up to guitarist Stewart for his exceptionally crisp and incisive rendition on both the live and prerecorded lines. Again, it is remarkable how thoughtfully composed this music is, with some delightfully evolved melodic ideas, particularly in the slow movement, and again in the finale, with even something one could call a development section, offset against the characteristic driving rhythm.

The jumpin' joint (Stephanie Mitchell photo)

The grand finale of the program was the Boston premiere of 2×5, a work written for BOACAS in 2008 and premiered by them the following year. One of Reich’s comments in the pre-concert session was that he is uncomfortable writing for single instruments, preferring that each part in a work be at least doubled. (Thus, his Pulitzer Prize winner Double Sextet, written for the ensemble eighth blackbird, could only have been done when that sextet agreed to have electronic doppelgangers.) For 2×5, then, Reich not only for independent reasons omitted the cello part in favor of a second electric guitar (Derek Johnson), but also put Ziporyn on piano opposite Chow, rather than on reeds. OK, we did the math as well: that still comes to six players, not five, and they also have their electronic counterparts (maybe not the pianos, which would then get to ten total “tracks”).

Esthetically, 2×5 continues Reich’s dialogue with popular idioms, in that, apart from the mechanical pianos, the ensemble thus created is essentially a rock band (Black having switched to electric bass). The music confirms this: the rhythms and melodic lines, as well as the timbres, reflect the rock sensibility. Against this Reich applied rhythmic irregularities, an enriched harmonic palette and a genuine harmonic motion absent from your typical evening at the Middle East.

We don’t know how much farther Reich intends to go along these lines, and his willingness to do so at his age is a remarkable thing as well, but the result was a highly engaging and rewarding exchange of ideas that even maximalists can get behind. The performances were as formidable as the music, which in this case is high praise. Our only quibble would be for better balance between the electric instruments and the pianos, which tended to get submerged too often.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

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