On Tuesday, American composer Steve Reich turned 70. New Yorkers are enjoying a month-long festival of performances of Reich's music, Steve Reich @ 70, much of which will be commented on by Alex Ross and others. Here in Washington, there was only one opportunity, a concert last night by the recently formed Great Noise Ensemble at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Silver Spring.
The program began with a favorite of mine, Music for Pieces of Wood, for five claves players. The piece, from 1973, uses pure rhythm as a way to reduce Reich's phasic layering to its most basic level. It is a good example of how, even with the simplest musical materials, Reich composes music that is extraordinarily complex and difficult to realize. This was a good performance, with a minimum of glitches, a few uneven rhythms. The only truly noticeable concern was the stray beat that marred the piece's sudden ending. Concluding the first half was a landmark piece in Reich's phasic style, Electric Counterpoint (1987), for electric guitar and recorded tape. Not unlike Violin Phase and New York Counterpoint, the performer records himself in several tracks and then plays the final part live against himself on the recording. Guitarist D. J. Sparr could be seen counting silently, his lips moving, as he navigated the live part's entrances, but the performance was generally solid, especially in the third movement, where the jagged theme makes much sharper, shorter phases. Later this month, at an October 21 concert at Carnegie Hall as part of Steve Reich @ 70, Pat Metheny will play Electric Counterpoint, nearly 20 years after he premiered this piece composed for and in consultation with him.
Charles T. Downey, Steve Reich at 70 (October 3, 2006)
Charles T. Downey, Music for Pieces of Wood (November 7, 2005)
Jens F. Laurson, City Life / New York Counterpoint (August 6, 2005)
I appreciate the piece, which I actually heard for the first time, and it has a lot of pretty effects, especially the crotales sounds in the last movement and the vibraphone and marimba sounds in the third movement (Psalm 18). For me, the piece falls flat, as it is kind of monochromatic in terms of tempo and color. The combination of texts could mean a lot of things (the other movements are based on Psalm 19 and Psalm 34), but Reich has not said much about it, except that the musical content is not at all based on Jewish themes. It is perhaps uncharitable to criticize the performers, who did such a service by bringing us Reich's music this week, but the music's construction makes rhythmic coordination very difficult. Instruments on sustained parts, especially the strings, did not always line up with the active parts, and tuning when the writing went into the stratosphere was sometimes sour. It was a valiant performance, whose imperfections did not mar the audience's general enjoyment of Steve Reich's birthday celebration.
The next concert by the Great Noise Ensemble will be on November 17 at 8 pm at the Sumner School (1201 17th Street NW), featuring music by the group's music director, Armando Bayolo, Heather Figi, Blair Goins, and the group's guitarist, D. J. Sparr.