Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Blackbirds at Dusk

Chicago Counterpoint: A Steve Reich Celebration @ Millennium Park's Pritzker Pavilion, Chicago, IL
Monday, August 22, 2011

Come Out (1966)*
Mallet Quartet (2009)
Double Sextet (2008)
Melodica (1966)*
Music for 18 Musicians (1974-1976)
It's Gonna Rain (1965)*

Performed by Eighth Blackbird, Third Coast Percussion and friends (with the exception of the *tape pieces, which were broadcast over the sound system at Pritzker).

Come Out was broadcast over the sound system as an invocation for an outdoor celebration of the music of Steve Reich. It quickly established that this was going to be a different Reich experience. Imagine hearing avant garde tape pieces of the 1960s played at a sporting event for a crowd of thousands. The sound vanishing into the open space with odd reflections obscuring the phasing that is the foundation of this sound. Eventually the Reich qualities emerge and the meditative nature of his repetitions begins to take hold and holds up surprisingly well within an acoustically challenging space. A sequence that repeated with each piece and performance of a music centered around repetition itself.

The late works of Mallet Quartet and Double Sextet draw upon stylistic elements that are deeply established. Even though these pieces were new to me, they were also deeply familiar in their similarities to the Reich oeuvre. The middle "slow" movements for both of them sounded like the the slow movements of Desert Music. But unlike Come Out or Desert Music, these works were strikingly non-political and polite. Pleasant music. But without the hungry fire that made his early works so groundbreaking and exciting. However, the soaring final movement of Double Sextet is a thing of soaring bliss that clearly was the reason why it won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Music. The processes that build over time in Reich's music have a way of scaling toward staggering musical vistas.

Music for 18 Musicians is an irresistible masterpiece. One of those rare works that carves out its own space to inhabit. One could hear the gentle push and pull at the rhythmic pulse as the outstanding musicians of Eighth Blackbird and Third Coast Percussion collectively focused upon that all consuming pulsation. The sky darkened perceptibly over the span of this hour long work. By the end, even the chirping crickets of the night had adjusted their own pulse to match.

The amplification for each of these pieces was a bit disorienting. The balance and the resonance being so different from the sound of concert halls and studio recordings. And yet, one by one, each of these compositions overcame the challenges of being freed from the concert hall and recording studio and found a way to thrive as a music that builds toward transcendent experience. That is a quality found in music that endures.

Steve Reich abandoned electronic music some time after his celebrated tape works of the 1960s in favor of live musicians realizing the rhythmic implications of the phasing principles he had been exploring. Performances of tape music have a long tradition of getting little respect. A tradition that the city of Chicago observed as they evicted me from the seating area long before the beautifully sonorous It's Gonna Rain had stopped filling the night air. Another obstacle that Reich's music manages to overcome with the persistent beauty of his compositions.

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