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Steve Reich at 70

Available at Amazon:
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Steve Reich, Different Trains and other works, Orchestre National de Lyon, David Robertson (released on November 16, 2004)

available at Amazon
Nonesuch Retrospective (released on September 26, 2006)

Today, American composer Steve Reich turns 70 years old. There is no avoiding it: the one-time bad boy of the New York contemporary music scene in the 1960s and 70s is now a member of the AARP. Nonesuch has released a retrospective album of recorded highlights, but these past several days, I have been listening to a 2004 disc of works for orchestra by Reich, recorded by the Orchestre National de Lyon and their music director, American conductor David Robertson (at the helm of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra since 2005).

Different Trains dates originally from 1988, when Reich combined a tape he recorded of people talking about trains with music played by a string quartet. In 2000, David Robertson asked him to revise the work, expanding the live musical component to a score for string orchestra, a version that Robertson premiered with the Philadelphia Orchestra in October 2001 (when its performance was perhaps overlooked because of the recent terrorist attacks). The musical motifs -- both rhythmic patterns and melodic content -- are derived largely from the words of the speakers on the tape: Reich's governess, Virginia; a retired Pullman employee; and three Holocaust survivors. In this expanded version, Reich preserved the original tape intact, with its recorded train sounds and musical sounds from a recorded string quartet.

Steve Reich, b. October 3, 1936The live part of the performance takes the instrumental transcriptions of vocal fragments and repeats them with slight variations, the hallmark of the minimalist style, although Reich has indicated his dissatisfaction with that term being applied to his music. Part of the live music in the orchestral version comes from what was originally played on the tape. The work slips imperceptibly from movement to movement, taking us from the hopeful sounds of American train travel leading up to World War II into the more sinister second movement, recounting how trains were used in Germany to transport prisoners to concentration camps during the war. The piece was inspired, according to Reich, by his memories of taking trains when he was a child in the 1940s, traveling between his mother's house in Los Angeles and his father's in New York.

The middle work on the recording is the agitated, lush Triple Quartet (1999), in its reworking for 36 strings. The piece is derived largely from the interval of a minor third, which is often situated actually as an augmented second (it moves hypnotically through four minor chords, all separated by the interval of a minor third or augmented second, beginning with E minor and cycling back to E minor), giving the work the flavor of an Arabian scale. It is one of the more dissonant works in the minimalist style, with Reich allowing the different phases to work their way through several striking clashes.

Reich on Ionarts:

Jens F. Laurson, City Life / New York Counterpoint (August 6, 2005)

Charles T. Downey, Music for Pieces of Wood (November 7, 2005)
By comparison, the last work, The Four Sections (1986), has more orchestral color (the only piece on the disc that uses instruments besides strings) but is more consonant. There is an incremental layering technique, as the jutting wave motifs are built up into sustained chords that swell and then recede. The second movement, with its metallic clatter of piano and vibraphone, may have been in the back of Thomas Adès' mind when he wrote the banquet music in his opera The Tempest. This disc contains 65 minutes of intensely pleasurable listening, for all the same reasons that music in this style is so ideal for film scores. The rhythmic interaction and mathematical proportions can occupy the mind of an attentive listener, but the relative melodic and harmonic stasis can also make the music slip easily into the background.

If you want to celebrate the septuagenarian composer, I know of only one opportunity in the Washington area this week. On Saturday (October 7, 8 pm) the Great Noise Ensemble will give a concert of Reich's music, including Electric Counterpoint, Tehillim, and the marvelous Music for Pieces of Wood at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Silver Spring. Tickets: $20 (students, $10).

naïve MO 782167

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