Alarm Will Sound shows the Reich stuff at Met Museum
After a culturally intriguing but musically unsatisfying year with DJ Spooky, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Artist in Residence for the 2013–2014 concert season is one of the leading new music ensembles, Alarm Will Sound. Their season-opening October concert, titled “The Permanent Collection,” however, proved a mediocre event that sought the superfluous goal of placing the group within the classical tradition – where else could they be?
Last night at the museum, Alarm Will Sound returned to expected form, and to their roots, with an all-Steve Reich concert that, in a punchy and concise two hours, managed to be both retrospective and new. The compositions ranged from Clapping Music from 1971 to last year’s Radio Rewrite in its New York premiere. In between was New York Counterpoint, City Life and new versions of two earlier works: Piano Counterpoint and “Four Genesis Settings” from The Cave. It was classical minimalism and beyond.
Minimalism is as varied as any earlier style in classical music, and Reich is a foremost founder and representative. His earliest mature music are tape pieces where he experiments with the effects of lengthening and foreshortening sections of the tape through looping repeats. He moved this technique – he called it “phasing” – to instruments in works like Violin Phase and Piano Phase. Those ideas developed into an additive style that marked his achievement as an important composer, heard in masterworks such as Music for 18 Musicians and Drumming.
Reich then began exploring vocal music in many forms: choral pieces like The Desert Music, the use of recorded speech to create and support music heard in Different Trains, and the opera-with-video The Cave. Lately, with 2×5 and Radio Rewrite, he’s been scratching a sub rosa itch for progressive rock, with deep rewards.
The unexpected results of the mix of music in the concert is that what had been the groundbreaking City Life sounds, in the context of his on-going career, as transitional and less important. When heard at one of its first performances in 1996, it was surprising and exciting – Reich was not only using samples as pitched material but was writing long form music with clearly delineated sections, different tempos, chord changes and modulations. The playing Saturday night was solid and confident, but didn’t have the bite and swing that conductor Alan Pierson got out of the Ensemble ACJW at a Zankel Hall concert in 2008. Tempos were relaxed and tended to tamp down the inherent drive and intensity.
Far more rewarding was “Four Genesis Settings.” The Cave is so far his only opera, a multimedia piece on the story of Abraham that also explores its contemporary ramifications for Jews, Muslims and Christians. The excerpts, for two or three singing voices and ensemble, are beautiful. They have Reich’s typical rhythmic energy and exhibit some of his finest craft as a composer.
Harmonies are nothing more than simple triads, the vocal parts are diatonic intervals, the stuff of exercises. But he spins everything together with certainty, clarity and a judicious sense of order. Steeped in his own mesmerizing repetitions, he has the ear to pick out the notes that claim their own principal positions. Reich accents them and pushes them to the fore as simple melodies, while their organic musical context gives them a resonant clarity and power. The only criticism of this set is that it’s far too short, and the music is too lovely and propulsive to be taken away so quickly.
Piano Counterpoint is an arrangement of Six Pianos made by Vincent Corver for piano and pre-recorded piano accompaniment. It doesn’t work. The music is etiolated rather than transformed. The key problem is that the pianist has too little to do, coming in and out of the accompaniment with long stretches of inactivity in between. There’s no flow to the part, no feeling of interaction with the audio.
Pianist John Orfe was buried at the back of the stage, behind music stands, marimbas and microphones. It was like an electronic music concert, everyone watching the speakers. The recorded part was drastically EQ-ed down to a dull middle range, the shimmering sonics of the original totally lost. After a physically exciting, joyful Clapping Music, with Reich joining Pierson at one of the stands, the air went out of the hall and the audience’s attention clearly wandered.
New York Counterpoint, in its original guise as a work for clarinet soloist accompanied by his own pre-recorded playing, is the same concept done right. There is constant interaction between musician and accompaniment, with short phrases tossed back and forth between the two, and the sound integrates into a real ensemble. Live, with clarinetist Bill Kalinkos, the music is energetic and acoustically deep.
The most outstanding part of the concert was Radio Rewrite. It has Reich’s fundamental virtue of physical and rhythmic vitality supporting the richest and most satisfying sense of harmony of any of his pieces. The combination is affecting in the way that is usually found in the Romantic style, largely because it comes out of progressive rock, a more recent, populist brand of romanticism.
2×5 was rhythmically complex rock, while Radio Rewrite has a directly appealing songfulness that comes out of its sources, “Everything in its Right Place” and “Jigsaw Falling into Place” by the great prog-rock band Radiohead. Reich has profoundly reworked the originals so that even a devoted fan has to listen hard to hear a cadence here and a particular snatch of dissonance there. The five continuous sections, fast-slow-fast-slow-fast, are magnitudes beyond the original songs.
Radiohead’s harmonies are themselves beyond the genre in sophistication and affect, but Reich’s are sublime, the power of his chord sequences hits right in the gut. The last section features an unexpected flute solo, supported by piano and clarinet, that seems to be shaped out of fragments of Thom Yorke’s vocal lines, but it’s pure Reich, with the elegant simplicity of a cantus firmus and the vibrancy of Dizzy Gillespie. Alarm Will Sound has an implicit feel for this music, and there’s nothing transitional about this compelling late style.
Alarm Will Sound’s Metropolitan Museum of Art residency continues 7 p.m. February 20, 2014, when they accompany a dance performance by Dance Heginbotham http://www.metmuseum.org/events/programs/artist-in-residence/alarm-will-sound