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  • dtoub 10:05 pm on Sunday, June 5, 2011, 10:05 pm Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Reich, WTC 9/11   

    wtc 9/11: some thoughts 

    When Different Trains came out many years ago, I liked it a lot, and still do. But it never seemed the revelatory masterpiece many of my friends consider it to be. Reich chased that with City Life and The Cave, which, like Different Trains, had instruments combined with taped recordings of actual human speech, and the instruments mimicked the words and inflections of the speakers. That effect worked well in Different Trains, but to me, other than the opening and fast middle section of City Life, it seemed boring and like a dead end to me.

    Contrast that with Reich’s earlier forays into speech-music, Come Out, and It’s Gonna Rain. In both cases, there were no instruments, just the raw speech of the respective speakers (a young black man beaten by police in Harlem, and a preacher in San Francisco talking about the biblical flood, respectively. These two early works are masterpieces. They highlight the words, but also the musical inflections inherent in most speech. Even when Reich later took the rhythmic structure of Come Out and scored it for a looped instrument, the result was Melodica, which does not involve any combination of speech with instruments.

    Speech with instruments can work, and work well. Rzewski’s Coming Together is one of my favorites, as is Schoenberg’s seminal Pierrot Lunaire. But in both cases, the words come forth, particularly in the Rzewski piece, and coexist peaceably with the instruments involved. Both voice and nonvocal instruments are co-equal partners, in effect.

    Reich eventually wrote Tehillim, which combines chanted words with instruments. I love the piece, and always have, but even Reich realized that the instrumental parts were a bit subservient to the voices, and tried to beef up the instrumental writing in subsequent works like The Desert Music. With works like Different Trains  and City Life, it was back to the words being supreme.

    This is the same thing, now, with Reich’s latest piece WTC 9/11, which was recently broadcast on the BBC online. Like Different Trains, et al, it melds recordings of actual people with instruments (in this case, a string quartet) mimicking and riffing on the word-melodies that are inherent in each recording. Now, I think in all fairness, SR had a challenge on his hands. There is a lot of emotional and personal energy associated with 9/11, and it remains a very raw wound for most of us. So to do justice to it is hard, and there is the clear expectation that a piece dedicated to what happened on 9/11 has to be some sort of amazing catharsis and deep piece. John Adams undoubtedly faced the same reality when he wrote On the Transmigration of Souls. Personally, I’m not a fan of that piece. But in hindsight, I think he pulls off the 9/11 references much better than did SR in his latest piece. There is a point at which words can do a lot to express a sentiment about an event. And there is a point at which music by itself can do that. But combining both is tough. Schoenberg didn’t do as good a job as I wished he had with his work A Survivor from Warsaw, and I wished both Adams and Reich had done better with their respective 9/11 memorial works.

    WTC 9/11, for me, would perhaps have worked better as a pure instrumental, or instrumental and vocal piece. While not his best work, I think Reich did better in setting the Daniel Pearl tragedy to music with his Daniel Variations, since the words were indeed Daniel Pearl’s, but the work was more about the music, and was a good setting of Daniel Pearl’s writings as well. WTC 9/11 starts off with a lot of ugliness and a busy signal, both taped and musical (you might have to hear it to understand what I mean). It’s an interesting idea, but can also seem kitchy. A later, more animated and more instrumental section works better, but that also (to my ears and only based on one listening) sounds like a variation on one of the faster parts of Double Sextet. The rest of the piece isn’t that memorable to me.

    Again, it’s hard to pull off a work of music that is an homage or remembrance of a major event. Nono tried it a lot, but made the mistake, I think, of getting too bogged down in the politics of it all to the detriment of the music (he was a committed Marxist, and that trumped everything). There are a lot of things I’d love to get into musically, based around historical or political events, and I’ve often thought of including various texts set to music or texts that are spoken in concert with music. But most times, I end up with the dilemma of trying to let the music come through while not cheapening the words, and have always abandoned the attempt. So, I’ve written a few works that hint at historical and political events (darfur pogrommen, hevron-deir yassin, torture memos (a survivor from guántanamo), but without any included texts. I think that was the right decision.

    There will be many people who are blown away by WTC 9/11. Just as there were many who were taken by Adams’ 9/11 tribute, which won a Pulitzer Prize. But I’m more impressed with Reich’s Come Out as a great artistic and musical triumph, one that makes the significance of an event very clear and also has a major impact upon the listener. Maybe down the road I’ll “get” what Reich was after. But right now, it seems more like City Life and Daniel Variations meet On the Transmigration of Souls.

    • kraig grady 9:47 pm on Friday, August 5, 2011, 9:47 pm Permalink

      It seems that Harry Partch was the master of the notating and capturing speech in a subtlety that these works of Reich just can get closer too. It was Partch’s desire to do so that lead him to finding it necessary to use a scale with more accuracy. But his bitter music might still be a better job.
      I find these works of Reich on this level a step backwards and unproductive. Perhaps he should makes some loops of HP talking [which i have done for fun] and would gain of why the 12 ET scale just doesn’t cut itdo it.

  • dtoub 10:14 am on Tuesday, April 21, 2009, 10:14 am Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Pulitzer, Reich   

    the pulitzer to steve reich is overdue 

    The Pulitzer to Steve Reich is overdue. Long overdue. He was composing innovative, disruptive music (disruptive in a good way, as in “disruptive technology”) in the 70’s that, along with the music of Glass, Riley and Young, radically changed the way a lot of us thought about music, even more than Cage changed our ideas. I personally don’t care about the Pulitzer, since it’s usually awarded to academically acceptable composers, or rarely an iconoclast like Ives, but only for innocuous work (listen to Ives, Symphony No. 3 and then wonder why this was worthy of a prize but not two of the greatest works by an American ever, his Symphony No. 4 and the Piano Sonata No 2 (Concord, MA)). Cage, Partch, Feldman, Nancarrow—not Pulitzer-worthy. And for years, it seemed like SR would be eternally snubbed by the Pulitzer committee almost as Ralph Shapey was.

    Now, is his Double Sextet more worthy than Drumming or Music for Eighteen Musicians? Probably not. But it’s a seismic event that he won at all, so I’m happy.

    I remember back in the 70’s when I first became aware of his music. My dentist, Dr. Irwin Cott, brought his music to my attention by giving me a program of Reich’s after he attended a concert in NYC (I think it might have been at the Whitney Museum and included Clapping Music). Cott befriended Reich when the two of them were patients undergoing herniorrhaphy at the Shouldice Clinic. Dr. Cott didn’t get Reich’s music, but was amazed by how many young people were in attendance and how devoted they were to Reich’s music. So I checked it out—my father had the original LP of Come Out and as much as I agreed with the politics, didn’t like the music. Same with everything else I tried: Violin Phase, Drumming, Six Pianos, etc. But I kept trying. Around 1978 or so my neurons began to click into place after listening to the radio premiere of Glass’s seminal work Einstein on the Beach and I was hooked. I spent a lunch hour one Saturday during my music studies to run to Sam Goody’s record store and bought Einstein, Music for 18 Musicians (I hadn’t yet heard it) and Stravinsky’s Cantata. When I got back to my Juilliard Pre-College class, my teacher, who is a composer I won’t name, asked to see what I bought. He loved that I had obtained the Stravinsky, but was taken aback by the Glass and Reich. His comment: “Well, I guess it’s nice to dance to.”

    I had many opportunities to meet Reich during my college years, as I interviewed him for a new music program I had on WHPK-FM. I went to his old loft in SoHo as well as his apartment near City Hall, met his wife and then young son, and still have an autographed copy of the first edition of Reich’s Writings About Music. Reich always struck me as having a singleness of purpose, and while I haven’t been as taken with much of his recent music, am glad my dentist’s hernia companion finally got some of the recognition he deserves. Now I’d like to see some recognition of other new music composers who are under-celebrated. I’m hoping the Pulitzer to Reich is the start of a trend, not a way of shutting up the new music community by finally giving SR the prize after so many years of people noting his obvious omission.

    • Paul H. Muller 1:35 pm on Tuesday, April 21, 2009, 1:35 pm Permalink

      Well you probably intended to mention Terry Riley in your second sentence, but we get the idea.

      Having just seen the Philip Glass documentary on American Masters and now revisiting the career of Steve Reich, you get the sense that back in the 70’s they just didn’t care if anyone “got” their music or not – they just wanted to play. Same, I think, for John Adams on the West Coast. That sense of abandon is vital and more and more difficult to realize in today’s stress-filled world. Are there still places where you can rent a loft and pay the bills by driving a taxi? I want to hope so…

    • kraig Grady 4:44 pm on Tuesday, April 21, 2009, 4:44 pm Permalink

      my reaction to this prize. It shows how out of it they are. It is actually exploitive in the sense it does more to legitimize the prize givers than the artist. Sorry i am not biting! If i were him i would be insulted being put in the same category as Charles Wourien ( i hope i spelt that wrong too!)

    • dtoub 7:59 pm on Tuesday, April 21, 2009, 7:59 pm Permalink

      Yup—I did indeed mean Riley. The post has been amended.

      kraig, I totally agree with you. But I also think the whole prize thing is nonsense. I have the same feeling that Paul has—that in the 70’s when I first got to know their music, they were writing because they wanted to, not because they were trying to become famous or make a living at it or whatever. I sensed it was all over when Glass signed with CBS Masterworks and came out with stuff that overall was commercial in its intent and pandering to try to reach a larger audience. I have nothing against trying to reach a larger audience, but don’t compromise in the effort to do so.

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