Music of Steve Reich
Bang on a Can All-Stars and Friends (feat. Bryce Dessner), eighth blackbird, Kronos Quartet, So Percussion
Saturday, April 30
Better than: The ritual, anniversary replay of news broadcasts from the morning of 9/11.
There is no other way to begin but by acknowledging that this review of a classical music concert from over the weekend was re-written after word spread, on Sunday night, of a successfully lethal military strike by U.S. forces against Osama bin Laden.
Your individual mileage may vary, in terms of whether you think that a mockable reality. Though even before news of bin Laden’s death crossed social media wires, there had been a feeling that the window for critical commentary on Saturday night’s concert at Carnegie Hall would need to be held open for some time–if only to accommodate reflection, let alone breaking news developments. The show was two things, at least: an evening-long celebration of New York musical eminence Steve Reich’s 75th birthday this year; and the local premiere of his long-anticipated, only recently completed work about 9/11 and its aftermath.
Nearly 40 years after the hidebound boos that greeted Reich’s Carnegie debut, in 1973, with “Four Organs,” the critical consensus has long been settled. The composer–one of America’s original sonic minimalists–is capital-I Important. That his music will survive him is beyond question. Also not up for debate is whether Reich stands as an indispensable part of New York’s musical firmament, as he is a touchstone for post-rockers, avant-turntablists and myriad stylists currently plowing the hybrid, compound-noun genre fields still yet to be blog-hyped (or even named).
It was this settled feeling of a reputation well-earned that allowed the New York premiere of Reich’s “WTC 9/11”–a 15-minute piece for three string quartets and pre-recorded voices–to bring some tension into the evening. Every other piece on Saturday’s program–including 2009’s Pulitzer-winning “Double Sextet” (no slouch) and “2×5,” the composer’s first work for rock instrumentation–followed Reich’s preferred structure: three movements, played without interruption (and in fast-slow-fast order). “WTC 9/11,” though, was revealed as a different Reich-ian beast: it pauses and breathes before picking up the exact same meter again. Sacrificing his tried-and-true tricks of dynamic momentum felt like Reich’s acknowledgment of the need for a new approach in addressing this subject matter. At minimum, the odd-piece-out provided an opportunity to recognize unfinished emotional and intellectual business, during what otherwise might have been merely the inspiration for a victory lap.
As performed by the Kronos Quartet–which, on Saturday, played along with two taped versions of the piece’s other string quartet parts–“WTC 9/11” feels both unsettling and unsettled-on-purpose. Its structural instability seems like a quality built by Reich into the text, which is constructed from NORAD alerts and FDNY radio dispatches, as well as citizen remembrances circa 2010 and quotations from Psalm 121:8 and Exodus, both sung in the Jewish tradition of Shmira (a practice of guarding bodies during the period between death and burial).
“WTC 9/11” opens with a violin sawing an F, perfectly matching the taped pulse tone of a disconnected phone left off the hook for too long. Then we start to hear from NORAD, the first institution to notice something amiss on the morning of 9/11. The speaker’s distorted, radio-dispatch tones are elongated by Reich’s pitch-sustain manipulation into an opaque, digital fog. Even on the page, its warnings seem as though in want of a minimalist’s interpretation:
They came from Boston–
Goin’ to LA–
And they’re headed south–
They’re goin’ the wrong
They’re goin’ the wrong way–
Goin’ the wrong way–
And then comes the first moment in the piece that, over and above being merely spooky, can catch the throat–when Reich’s cello part matches the NORAD dispatcher’s percussive stress for percussive stress, on the phrase:
No contact with the pilot–
No contact with the pilot whatsoever–
Reich’s “additive” style of thematic development (in which new information is added to a line with each repetition) has had its share of successful moments over the last 40-plus years, though I’m hard-pressed to recall one as dead-in-your-tracks arresting as this.
“WTC 9/11” then moves quickly onward–perhaps precipitously so–to sampling lines from FDNY workers, before delivering us to memories of the morning (voiced by the still-living) and songs of religious ritual. But works of art can discover unconscious justifications for their existence around and between rough edges. And here, the hodgepodge feels like part of the point. “WTC 9/11” is not a grandly conceived requiem, like John Adams’s “On the Transmigration of Souls.” It is a hectic thrashing through of conflicting emotions and reactions to the attack–and may, for that reason, feel especially well-timed for anyone experiencing more than one emotion about the overdue delivery of a bullet to bin Laden’s head. If it’s too early to say whether “WTC 9/11” will emerge as one of Reich’s most important and well-written pieces, that’s fine. Surely we have enough fixed opinions to keep us company for the moment. (“WTC 9/11” is scheduled for a September release on Nonesuch, before the 10th anniversary of the attack.)
As of this morning, the 15 minutes of “WTC 9/11” now linger somewhat precariously over memories of the other pieces from Saturday night. But my notes tell me that I was newly impressed with the booming kickdrum patterns of “2×5”–a piece that sounded timidly recorded and generally ill-served to me on record. Here’s hoping the Carnegie performance–which was miked from here to Sunday, and so presumably captured–can be issued at some future date. (Bryce Dessner from the National was part of the crew that augmented the Bang On A Can All-Stars, so I don’t know: maybe it could be released on vinyl next Record Store Day?)
With 12 people to play it, instead of a sextet doubling a taped version of itself, “Double Sextet” sounded more gratuitously virtuosic and expressive than on last year’s recording–though I wasn’t convinced the already cinematic strains of that piece needed more emotive articulation. Reich’s 2009 Mallet Quartet was granted a sensitive local premiere at the hands of the specialist So Percussion ensemble. Even there, though, inside a much more familiar Reich-ian structure, there were hints of an artist still leaning new tricks–no less so than when harmonies and rhythms in the second movement seemed less expectant and frustrated in their pauses than actually–gasp–restful. At this point, we’re 10 years into the routine of making jokes about how and what might culturally constitute a score for the terrorists–that is, “if we don’t do this, then they win”–but damn it if Reich being yet on the make for new New York sounds doesn’t feel like some kind of victory for us.
Critical bias: When I interviewed him after his Pulitzer win, the motor-mouth Reich described the then-upcoming “2×5” as a piece for “all rock n’ roll people.” He meant in terms of instrumentation, but the sense in which it could be construed as written for each and every rock aficionado charmed me.
Overheard: “See him in the back? He’s wearing his black baseball cap!” (Reich was also running sound.)
Random notebook dump: Counted six different people heading for the aisles during the loudest part of “2×5.” (I prefer to think they were consciously reenacting a small part of Reich’s first Carnegie concert.)
“Mallet Quartet” (New York premiere)
“WTC 9/11” (New York premiere)
“2×5” (New York premiere)