Beauty and Joy Out of Angst and Despair

October 2006 has been Steve Reich month in New York City. It seems like there’s an event almost every day somewhere in town in celebration of his 70th birthday. And while I consider myself a huge Reich fan—I own every single recording of his music and bought most of them the day they came out—I must confess that I’ve felt little incentive to be at all these concerts. There’s just too much going on and I want to hear the music I haven’t heard yet.

However, I was in the audience at Zankel Hall on Sunday night because there was a piece on the program that I hadn’t heard: Daniel Variations, which received its American premiere on this concert. Sandwiching this characteristically radiant work with an assortment of Reich classics—signature works such as Piano Phase and Drumming plus the 2004 Pulitzer finalist Cello Counterpoint—was in some ways more unfair to it than the orchestra world’s perpetual habit of putting an unknown-sounding contemporary music premiere in between works by Beethoven and Brahms. Expectation, which is always driven by context, frequently gets in the way of a fair hearing of a piece of music on its own terms.

Inevitably comparisons will be drawn between this new half-hour piece in four sections for four singers, four pianos, string quartet, two clarinets, and six percussionists, and Drumming, also in four sections. Or the memories of Reich’s similarly quadripartite Four Sections for orchestra, or Tehillim, which featured four singers as well, etc. Such are the rules of the judgment game.

However, in this case, Reich pitted himself against something larger than his own oeuvre or even the canon of composed music. He pitted himself against headline news. Daniel Variations was born out of the kidnapping and violent murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan in February 2002. This was a particularly jarring and horrific act in what sometimes feels like an age of atrocity. But Reich responded to this brutality with a work celebrating Daniel Pearl’s life with beauty and joyousness. It turns out Pearl was a musician and Pearl’s music-loving parents were among the many ecstatic members in the audience that night.

Reich used his tools as a composer to create one of the few pearls—please pardon the unavoidable pun—in a sea of seeming hopelessness and despair. While this is something we can do in music that we unfortunately cannot do in the political sphere, it proves how music can ultimately be more valuable than politics.

3 thoughts on “Beauty and Joy Out of Angst and Despair

  1. JKG

    “Expectation, which is always driven by context, frequently gets in the way of a fair hearing of a piece of music on its own terms.” A little too much angst, Frank. I certainly do not agree where my own experience is concerned. It is so interesting to read within the confines of a new music blog that the norm is for folks to automatically compare new music for the worst, especially if done so in relation to a recognized master. Why is this? I’d become almost convinced that most new music pundits were a LOT more “openminded” than I am, yet in all honesty I generally look forward to a new work if presented on any program. If music must ideally receive a “fair” hearing, then why can’t fairness extend to numerous other aspects of the artistic experience? Reich has every right to expect folks to be honest with themselves regarding his music, yet he likely has little time to deconstruct precisely why anyone wouldn’t like it. He is a very talented man – that is what keeps him above the fray of listener opinion.

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  2. Frank J. Oteri

    Re: “A little too much angst, Frank. . . It is so interesting to read within the confines of a new music blog that the norm is for folks to automatically compare new music for the worst, especially if done so in relation to a recognized master.”

    That’s not exactly what I was saying. In fact, what I did say is: It can sometimes be even harder for a new work to be evaluated for its own merits when surrounded by earlier more-known works by that same composer as it is for the self-same new work to appear alongside established masterpieces. In the latter category, the folks doing the comparison with the Brahms, Beethoven, et al surrounding it are not necessarily the new music crowd. In most cases it is obviously not the new music crowd, since we would most likely be there to hear the new piece and not the standard rep works. But everyone else—from the subscriber base to the orchestra admin and frequently many of the players—too often reveres the older works more than they do most of the new music. And I would argue that that imbalance is not because of any qualities lacking or not lacking in the new piece, but because of the disproportionate familiarity with the old piece.

    New music composer portrait concerts have a different problem, more akin to the problem of rock bands or jazz groups which combine the fans’ faves along with new material. Once again, the never-heard music, being less familiar, begins at a disadvantage since repeated listenings, in most cases, make hearts grow fonder. But for most rock and jazz gigs playing the new material is usually concurrent with the audience then being able to buy a recording of that same new material. This at least affords listeners the opportunity to become as familiar with the new material as they are with what they had already heard. But how long will we have to wait for a commercially-released CD of Reich’s Daniel Variations?

    I suppose if you’d like to call these ruminations a manifestation of angst on some level, so be it. But please don’t imagine that it is angst toward new music, especially Reich’s. This is simply not true.

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  3. JKG

    No, no, no…
    “I suppose if you’d like to call these ruminations a manifestation of angst on some level…” No, please Frank, accept my apologies for misunderstanding you. I perfectly understand and receive your eloquent clarification. *big, possum-eatin’ grin*

    Reply

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