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The WholeNote: Steve Reich, Then & Now (April cover story)

Then: My first experience of meeting the renowned American composer Steve Reich was in a master class he gave for composition students at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music. It was early in 1976 and he was in town as the guest of New Music Concerts who presented performances of his music during both an afternoon and evening concert. In the master class, I remember sitting spellbound as I listened to him speak about his musical ideas that challenged all I was being taught in school.
This was at a time when the serialist aesthetic dominated the new music world. Hearing about this radical new approach was a breath of badly needed fresh air. He spoke about the importance of being able to hear and perceive the shifts and changes as they occurred in the music, and about how, for this to work, the process needed to be gradual – a musical process that resembled setting a swing in motion and watching it come to rest. It made complete sense to me.

To back up his words, he asked if anyone in the room would be up for joining him in playing his piece Piano Phase to demonstrate his phasing technique, the process he had developed to create this slowly evolving musical structure. Composer and pianist Henry Kucharzyk, at the time a student at the faculty, immediately volunteered. I remember Reich’s surprise that anyone even knew the piece and his being completely astonished at Kucharzyk’s skill in playing a work that requires intense focus to perform the shifting rhythmic patterns.

A few days later at the NMC afternoon concert, Piano Phase was performed again on marimbas by Russell Hartenberger and Bob Becker, longtime members of the Steve Reich and Musicians ensemble. The afternoon program also included Clapping Music, Music for Pieces of Wood and Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ, and the evening concert culminated with one of Reich’s favourite pieces, the hour-long Drumming. I remember too the instantaneous and roaring standing ovation this piece received, a rare occurrence at a new music concert.

When I recently contacted New Music Concerts to access the programs from those concerts, I was told that they had marked the first time Reich’s music had been performed by anyone other than members of his own ensemble. This was only possible because of the presence of Hartenberger and Becker. Both at the time were teaching percussion at U of T and York, and were members of the Toronto-based Nexus percussion ensemble. In a recent phone conversation, Hartenberger told me that to make the concert happen, he gathered together musicians from other members of Nexus, some of his students, and other Toronto-based musicians he knew. Just how significant a moment in time was this concert? “Steve was wary of other people playing his music,” Hartenberger said. “But he knew that Bob and I knew the music and were able to coach, so there was some trust there that it would be the way it was supposed to be. He allowed us to do it, but it was quite a while before anyone outside the group played those pieces.”

Hartenberger first met Reich in 1971 when he was a graduate student at Wesleyan University and was invited to join the Drumming rehearsals; Reich needed percussionists to help him develop the ideas for this work. The rehearsal and composition process were interwoven and it took weekly rehearsals over the course of several months before the piece was finished. “Steve would demonstrate the new parts each week, we would play and learn that part, and then tag it onto what we had learned the week before.” At the time there wasn’t a really clear score, so in order to perform the piece it was necessary to learn from someone who had already played it and could coach performers on what was supposed to happen. Thus the difficulty in anyone outside of the members of Reich’s ensemble being able to perform not only Drumming, but most of his music written up to that point, particularly the pieces with multiple performers.

As I dug further into the story of Reich’s music in Toronto, the impact of the 1976 concerts became even more evident. At least two of Hartenberger’s percussion students who performed there went on to become members of the Arraymusic Ensemble, which Kucharzyk himself joined in 1976 as pianist, later becoming artistic director from 1982-88. It was under Kucharzyk’s tenure that Array began performing some of Reich’s music, including the larger pieces Sextet and Six Pianos. In 1988, Arraymusic’s clarinetist Robert W. Stevenson performed New York Counterpoint, one of Reich’s pieces in which a solo performer plays against multiple recordings of the same instrument. Rather than using the prepared tape available from Boosey & Hawkes, Stevenson recorded his own tracks and his performance of the piece became part of Array’s touring repertoire throughout Canada and Europe in the late 80s and early 90s. In 1991, it was released on Arraymusic’s CD, Chroma.

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Now it is 2016, 40 years later, and Reich is returning to Toronto amidst a plethora of events that Soundstreams has organized to celebrate his 80th birthday. The momentous visit will culminate in a concert at Massey Hall on April 14. Coincidentally, the concert will open with a performance of Clapping Music, the same piece that began the 1976 afternoon concert, and performed by the same two musicians – Reich and Hartenberger. Armed with all these stories of the impression Reich’s 1976 visit in Toronto had made on me and on others, I was mildly surprised and a bit disconcerted, when I spoke to him recently on the phone, to realize that he had only the vaguest memories of that particular trip (which of course makes sense given the number of times he has toured around the world).

Once we got past my expectation that he would be able to provide his own memories of that 1976 concert, to counterpoint my own, we launched into a conversation about the two main pieces that will be performed on April 14 – Music for 18 Musicians and Tehillim, which to his knowledge have not been performed on the same program before. I was sure I had heard Music for 18 Musicians before somewhere in Toronto, I told him, although neither of these works appeared on any of the concert programs for New Music concerts, Arraymusic or Soundstreams (which has presented two previous concerts of his music). Later I asked Hartenberger about this, and he confirmed that “about 10 to 15 years ago,” he performed the work at the MacMillan Theatre with a group of U of T students who worked for an entire semester to learn the piece. (The actual date, it turns out, was January 21, 2005.)

Rather than digging up anecdotes from memory’s scrapbook, the conversation Reich and I embarked upon focused on the steps his compositional ideas and discoveries have taken over time and how the explorations of one piece or series of works led quite organically to the next phase. In order to illustrate how the composing of Music for 18 Musicians in 1976 marked a turning point in his compositional approach, he backtracked even further, explaining talk about how all the music that had preceded it was based around a basic rhythm or melodic pattern. He illustrated this by tapping out the rhythmic basis of Drumming saying: “That’s Drumming, and everything else is elaboration – pitch, timbre, and canonic placement. The entire hour of music comes from that tiny little module.” The shift that happened in the composing of Music for 18 Musicians came when he sat down at the piano and made up a series of harmonies, “admittedly something composers have been doing for thousands of years, but I hadn’t been.”

His goal up to that point, he said, had been to keep the harmony and timbre the same, and have rhythm be what moved the music forward. He stressed that what made these earlier pieces work with their interlocking patterns and resultant complex counterpoint was “to have identical instruments playing against each other. That’s an acoustic necessity.” In the four sections that make up Drumming, the first three parts are for multiples of the same instrument (8 bongos, then 3 marimbas, then 3 glockenspiels), but in the last part all the instruments are mixed together. This was for him the big breakthrough that led directly into Music for 18 Musicians and the use of a mixed instrumental ensemble. He admits that although this was a step forward for him and at the time resulted in a very new piece, it was also simultaneously one step back into traditional western ways of making music.

The work is scored for a large ensemble made up of a combination of clarinets, violin, cello, marimbas, xylophones, vibraphone, four pianos and four women’s voices. Harmonically, it is based on a series of 11 chords that unfold over an hour with the cues of when to move forward to the next section coming from the vibraphone player. “The excitement for me” Reich said “was in using mixed orchestration for the first time, because I’ve been doing it ever since. The tension of going from one way of writing to another way is embodied in that piece. That makes it very unique.”

The other work on the April 14 program is Tehillim, composed in 1981. This work marks another break from what Reich had been doing up to this point, both rhythmically and in his treatment of the voice. Previously, his rhythmic patterns were created by dividing up triple metres in various ways, and vocally he had relied on using vocalise – syllables or vocal sounds rather than text. “For the first time since I was a student, I decided I was going to set words, like the normal use of the human voice.” While working, he began chanting the original Hebrew words of Psalm 19 over and over until “suddenly a melody popped into my head, while at the same time this rhythm popped into my head – one, two; one, two, three; one, two; one, two, three.” Wondering what was happening, “I suddenly realized it was the unconscious dredging up of my previous knowledge from years ago of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and Bartok’s Bulgarian rhythms, which was basically the use of fast changing metres. And somehow, and who knows how, the Hebrew text attached itself to those rhythms.”

As he continued to work on the piece, with each of the remaining three movements built upon the texts of different psalms, he realized that this process wasn’t going away. Rather it ended up staying not only for the entire piece but became the basis for The Desert Music (composed in 1983) and continues to appear in many other instrumental works to this day. “It became a spontaneous discovery of another musical language through the setting of the Hebrew text.”

This story of progressive and transformative discovery has been the hallmark of Reich’s compositional career, going back to his initial explorations, in the mid-1960s, of what would happen sonically when playing back a series of tape loops with the same recorded fragment and listening as they gradually moved out of sync or phase with each other. The ensuing musical structure manifests itself inhis pieces It’s Gonna Rain and Come Out, and forms the foundation of how his musical aesthetic itself has slowly morphed and changed throughout the years. It’s as if his own musical ideas and discoveries were having and continue to have a conversation amongst themselves, as became evident when we talked about his recent compositions.

In 2013, for example, he wrote Quartet for the Colin Currie Group, a UK virtuosic percussion ensemble devoted to playing Reich’s music. By deciding to score the piece for two vibraphones and two pianos, he was using the same core instrumentation that has been the foundation for many of his previous pieces. What’s distinctive about Quartet, though, is that it changes key more frequently than in any other piece. “Harmonically, it’s all over the map, just the opposite of what you’d associate with me, especially in the early pieces. When I first finished it, I thought it was a mess, but when I heard it, I found it interesting and the performers loved it.” Two years later, in 2015, Reich composed Pulse, scored for a small group of strings and winds, piano and electric bass. “The pulse is constant, creating a very hypnotic work with static harmonic changes and just the kind of thing you’d think I would have written 20 to 30 years ago. Maybe I wrote it in reaction to the previous piece (Quartet). Sometimes that happens.”

Currently, he is working on a co-commission from The Royal Ballet in London and Ensemble Signal, based in New York. Titled Runner, the piece will be premiered on November 10 at the Royal Opera House in London’s Covent Garden with choreography by Wayne McGregor. What distinguishes this piece is the incremental changes in rhythmic values, despite the fact that the tempo doesn’t change. This musical progression of different note durations reflects the idea that runners have to pace themselves.

What intrigued me in listening to Reich speak about his music some 40 years later was how, even though in the early days his music offered a radically different approach to music making, he remains, now as he was then, almost bemused by how the evolutionary process of his musical explorations continually brings him back to the pillars of western musical tradition and more normal ways of composing.

And as we, the audiences of Toronto, gear up for his April visit, we can look forward, now as we did then, to the way the magnetic pulse of the sound weaves its own magic within our ears, as once again we engage, step by step, with the timeless music of Steve Reich.

The WholeNote’s regular new music columnist, Wendalyn Bartley, is a Toronto-based composer and electro-vocal sound artist.

Read the full article here.

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