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Tuesday, October 18, 2005
new music from Steve Reich
You Are; Cello Counterpoint
Steve Reich
Conductor, Grant Gershon
Maya Beiser, Los Angeles Master Chorale

I've long been an admirer of Steve Reich's music. When I was growing up, my dentist was a personal friend of his, and I owned the old LP of Come Out that introduced me to his work. I eventually met Reich several times during college when I interviewed him in his old loft near City Hall for a college radio show I ran. He kindly gave me an autographed copy of his book Writings About Music that I still have. I've followed his career, and even one of the project managers where I work is a fan.

There are a lot of commonalities among many Reich works. Not just in terms of style, but even at the level of notes, form and harmonies. I had noticed ever since The Desert Music that a number of subsequent works share similar features, even down to similar chordal structures (at least to my ears). The Desert Music gave rise to Sextet, The Four Sections and Three Movements, for example. In the same fashion, Different Trains led to City Life, The Cave and Three Tales. I like Different Trains, am a bit less enamored of City Life and have never warmed up to The Cave or Three Tales. That's life. On the other hand, I genuinely love Triple Quartet, which in some ways was influenced by Bartok's fourth quartet.

So I wasn't sure what I would think of SR's latest recording, You Are (Variations) and Cello Counterpoint. You Are (Variations) is music for a fairly large ensemble that includes four pianos and assorted voices. The text for the four sections are single sentences, one sentence per section. Two of the four sentences come from Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, a great Jewish mystic of the 1700's (four years ago, I noticed that many cars throughout Israel were plastered with bumper stickers of his sayings). One sentence is from Wittgenstein, who has always been a favorite philosopher of SR's, and the other sentence is from the Pirke Avot. Of the four texts, two are in Hebrew, and two are in English.

The performance, by Grant Gershon and the Los Angeles Master Chorale, appears authentic. Overall, I like the piece, which even contains a section in the first movement reminiscent of jazz. As much as I like the piece, it doesn't seem to break much new ground. A lot of the harmonies recall The Desert Music and its progeny. The opening chords for pianos, followed by the tuned percussion patterns, recall both the opening of The Desert Music and Sextet, and eventually even the pulses of Music for 18 Musicians rear their head. Still, I found a lot to like in the piece, and on repeated listenings I've come to like it very much. But that also may be because I really like a lot of the previous works that form the basis for You Are.

What worked better for me was Cello Counterpoint. I've heard probably all the Counterpoint pieces of Reich by now, beginning with Vermont Counterpoint and as much as I like them all, expected much of the same. Cello Counterpoint is a different beast, having more in common perhaps with Triple Quartet than the previous Counterpoint pieces. The work is scored for eight celli, either live or with the other parts previously taped (as is the case with this recording). The piece was written for the cellist Maya Beiser, and was apparently challenging to compose based on the composer's comments in the liner notes. It is a moody, very contrapuntally dense piece, and the performance seems definitive.

At this point, Reich is planning for his 70th birthday, and continues to write music that is repetitive, harmonically-driven, pattern-based and inspired by the sound of human voices. It will be interesting to see how his music evolves. This release is definitely more interesting to me than The Cave, for example.


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