American in London: The Influence of Steve Reich, Part 2


Appropriately enough for a Sunday morning, the day’s first concert at St, Luke’s church began with a set of works performed by the otherworldly Theatre of Voices, conducted by Paul Hillier. Their set began with a phenomenal performance of Steve Reich’s Proverb, the text of which, “How small a thought it takes to fill a whole life” has always hung in the back of my mind as a starting point for much of Reich’s work. I was also lucky enough to hear a breathtaking performance of David Lang’s Little Match Girl Passion, a work that felt doubly sparse and emotional in the context of a weekend of dense, multi-layered, Reich-inflected works. Again, I find myself moved by the math and simplicity of David Lang’s music, which never bubbles over into ham-fisted sentiment, but instead draws the listener into a thinly furnished and vulnerable world unlike any other. It’s a world that lets the listener fill in the gaps herself, and I have to admit it’s unsettling for a young composer to hear so much reflective, personal and, in my overexcited mind, close to perfect music in one concert. There’s a certain moment in my compositional process when the piece seems to be writing itself, when intuition leaps up and yells “I’ll take it from here,” and I yell back “It’s about time!” But Proverb and Little Match Girl Passion feel satisfyingly intuitive without ever losing a mathematically perfect sheen from start to finish. These pieces, like my favorite pieces by Beethoven, Sibelius, and Pärt, make me want to keep working, to strive for an impossible combination of control and instinct.

The afternoon’s concert again reset our ears with a performance of Music for Pieces of Wood, arranged for drums and performed by David Cossin and Ian Ding. As I’ve written again and again, the programming of this festival was superb; the audience needed the ecstatic, unbridled jolt of two drummers after the introspective works of that morning’s concert. Chicago-based new music iconoclasts eighth blackbird provided a further jolt with a set of works that showed the influence of Reich taken to an extreme place. They began the set with my work, Still Life with Avalanche, which I’m not going to talk about except to say that I was a very happy composer indeed, followed by Thomas Adeès’s Catch, a work written when the composer was only 19. I’m honestly not sure that Adès is influenced by Reich at all, but eighth blackbird gave a typically refined performance of this theatrical work that helped it tie this diverse program together. Philippe Hurel’s …a measure uses a musical language that, at first listen, seems to be very far removed from Reich. But Hurel, in his own words, built this frenetic work out of “short pulsating rhythmic sequences, each in turn accompanied by rhythmic accelerations and decelerations coming from a different musical universe.” These sequences “mix with abundant rhythmic polyphonies which ultimately settle firmly into loops.” It’s so Reich! Who knew? David Lang’s These Broken Wings Part 3, an exuberant and, I suspect, fiendishly difficult encore, concluded eighth blackbird’s set.

The Amadinda Percussion Group gave the UK premiere of Reich’s Mallet Quartet. Despite the bouncy, joyful melodies, Mallet Quartet strikes me as an introspective work, full of static harmonies, reverberant marimba notes that seem to be on the edge of the human threshold of hearing, and a sparse, beautiful middle movement.

The afternoon concert concluded with a performance by Dusseldorf-based composer/pianist Hauschka (a.k.a. Volker Bertelmann) who performed Movement and Maps for piano and two excellent percussionists. This set was a delightful descent into entropy and a little noise, the rattling of the prepared piano mixing seamlessly with the rock-inflected drums. While Hauschka only claimed to have discovered Reich four years ago, his music feels organically inspired by Reich’s pulsing ostinatos and unpredictable harmonic shifts. I met him outside after the concert for a little chat in the hopes of uncovering the inspiration for this set, and any possible connection to Reich:

My biggest regret of the weekend, besides my taking a cavalier attitude towards ale consumption at St. John’s restaurant on Friday night, was missing the afternoon’s performance of Reich’s You Are (Variations) and Julia Wolfe’s Cruel Sister. These two excellent works were performed by the Britten Sinfonia, conducted by André de Ritter. Cruel Sister in particular has been in constant rotation on my iPod these days—it’s an epic work that I hope to hear live as soon as possible.

The indefatigable André de Ritter pressed on with one of the most exhilarating and ambitious moments of the weekend, a performance of Canadian violinist/composer Owen Pallett’s album Heartland, featuring Pallett’s band backed by the orchestra. Heartland was, in my opinion, one of the most innovative albums of 2010, and the fact that it translated so easily to the orchestra underscores Pallett’s phenomenal musicianship and command of his material. I have heard Owen perform these songs many times over the last two months, but always as part of a solo set in which he generates all the material by looping the processed sound of his own violin and voice. I was worried that these works would lose some of their intimacy and poignancy when set within a large orchestra, but all for naught! The set was rambunctious and thrilling, and the orchestra seemed to be caught up in a wave of excitement that reverberated backwards from Pallett’s trio at the front of the stage.


Owen Pallett with the Britten Sinfonia

Eighth blackbird and the Bang on a Can All-Stars took the stage together for the London premiere of Reich’s Double Sextet. This work was originally written for eighth blackbird doubled by a recording of the same performers, but tonight we heard the “live” version, for a mirrored ensemble of two flutes, two clarinets, two pianos, two vibraphones, two violins, and two cellos. The excitement backstage before this performance was palpable, and the performance was phenomenal, particularly the placid and gently churning second movement, which always feels ready to bubble out of control in the most delicious way.


Reich after the performance of Double Sextet

OK, so, conclusion: what is the legacy of Steve Reich? How has the younger generation been inspired by him? After this weekend, I feel that it’s much more of a philosophical legacy than a sonic one. It’s Tyondai Braxton and Dan Deacon creating new ensembles just as much as it is Hauschka or Max Richter working with modulations, layers, and piano ostinatos. It’s also an influence that is so dissipated and widespread that it can’t easily be cataloged. It’s very young composers learning/stealing things from students of students of students of friends of Steve Reich. You can hear it when Michael Gordon smashes Beethoven to pieces, when Lukas Ligeti brings in a jangly, African-inspired guitar lick, when Bryce Dessner combines children’s choir and electric guitar in a beautiful web of polyrhythms. I can’t say it better than Alex Ross—as young composers “we are living in a world scored by Reich.”