Notes from the underground

After last week’s column, in which I brutally attacked two composers, I received an assignment from one of my editors to “review more music you don’t like.” Perhaps a column on Brit Pop is in order. I also received criticism from my former piano teacher, Ed Lawrence, who is a big Carl Ruggles fan. Finally, I was informed that the blame for programming the David Leisner piece should fall, indirectly, on the audience of the Amarillo Symphony. It was the Amarillo conductor and our visiting conductor, James Setapen, who were responsible for making the programming decision; his audience seems to have encouraged him to play such contemporary drivel. My apologies to Ronald Feldman and anyone else I may have unfairly blamed.

So what do I make of all this hubbub? Well, I have considered the idea of “hating” a piece of music, especially in light of the recent Alumni Composers concert given by the Group for Twentieth Century Music, in which I found most of the music quite uninteresting. I did not hate that music, though, nor did I hate the David Leisner piece. It was simply too bland, too “undiscussible,” too lacking in confrontational elements for anyone to truly hate it. I now realize that the old adage, “there’s a thin line between love and hate,” is absolutely on target. Love and hate are probably the two strongest emotions that we, as humans, can feel. In order for a piece of music to produce those emotions, it must be effective in some way. I truly hate the Ruggles piece because it goes starkly against my idea of a satisfying musical construction – and yet, I must admit that it is a powerful statement. It is for that reason that I can feel such loathing towards it.

This week, we will turn our attention to one of the most famous American composers of our time, Steve Reich. As with most great composers, it’s impossible to use one CD to illustrate his particular “sound” or “conceit,” as Andrea Mazzariello ’00 might put it. Reich was one of the first minimalists, and probably the most inventive, using African, Balinese, and Jewish influences alongside electronic techniques. At the same time, he never lost his love for traditional Western acoustic instruments, and the three works on this week’s CD (CD R35 2) are all written for instruments that you have heard of and have heard performed before.

I have discussed minimalism before in reference to John Adams, Philip Glass, and Bang on a Can, and much of what is distinctive about Reich’s music comes from that genre, as well. In “Music for a Large Ensemble,” Reich creates a wonderful, dance-like feel out of small motives in a large group of instruments. Reich has a great sense of our natural impulses towards motion; his music plays off of those impulses and makes us want to dance. In later works, such as “Different Trains” and “The Cave,” he uses our natural speech inflections to create musical lines, which he then manipulates. You can hear him doing the same thing with small musical fragments in all of the works on this disc. “Music for a Large Ensemble” is remarkable for its consistent feel throughout the work; despite that consistency, there is also enough change to keep us interested.

The second work on the disc is an earlier work of Reich’s, “Violin Phase.” Reich wrote a series of pieces based on the idea of “phasing,” where two voices move gradually out of sync with each other as one grows progressively faster or slower. Here, the technique is achieved with only one violin recording four separate tracks (actually three, with the live performance counting as the fourth) with various rhythmic and phasing relationships to each other. The technique is very interesting, but I have never been terribly interested by the result of Reich’s phasing works. “Violin Phase” is probably the least interesting that I have heard in terms of sound, but most interesting in terms of technique. While it is amazing that one violin can turn into such an elaborate sound network, it is still somewhat dull to listen to one violin playing a very similar motif for 15 minutes. Much of the appeal of “Music for a Large Ensemble” is the variety of colors Reich pulls out of his assembled instrument group; with only one violin, there is not nearly as much to work with, especially when it is used in such a limited fashion. It seems to me that Reich chooses to focus on the idea of phasing at the expense of the larger musical success of the piece.

The final work on this disc, “Octet,” returns us to a sound world quite similar to that of “Music for a Large Ensemble.” In both, Reich develops larger musical melodies out of small motifs; this is particularly important in the “Octet,” with its use of techniques found in Hebrew cantillation. There is a particular melancholy feel to the “Octet” that is not found in “Music for a Large Ensemble,” one which may be familiar to anyone who has attended a synagogue service. I have to imagine that he intended such an atmosphere – and yet, underneath the slight air of sadness is the familiar bounce of Reich’s sound world, not in opposition to the longer lines, but supporting them with energy and life.

Steve Reich is an excellent composer; the music on this disc is engaging and should appeal to many readers. Perhaps I will return to “bad music” in the future, but for now, go out and listen to this invigorating and refreshing disc.