Steve Reich, forever young - Reich, Glass and Bryars at the Annenberg Center

March 9, 2010

Dan Coren

Broad Street Review


In April of 2007, as I reported in these pages, I was persuaded to re-acquaint myself with the so-called Minimalist composers John Adams, Philip Glass and Steve Reich. At that time, I had hardly any knowledge of Reich’s music, despite the fact that the Alex Ross, writing in the New Yorker, had called him the greatest living composer.

But at the very end of that year, Reich provided my wife and me with what really could be called a life-changing experience. We were returning from a Christmas visit to Massachusetts via I-95; just as we embarked on the dreary schlep between the Massachusetts border and New Haven, I said to my wife, “See what you think of this,” as I slipped my recently-acquired disk of Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians into the CD player.

This hypnotically pulsating musical organism immediately enveloped us and devoured the next 80 miles as if they were nothing. I don’t know which gave me more pleasure: the music itself or seeing my wife in the sort of trancelike state she enters while photographing sandhill cranes along the Platte River in Nebraska.

When, 70 minutes later, the music stopped without any warning (as Reich’s music often does), she plaintively asked, without the slightest hint of sarcasm, “Is that all? It’s over?” My wife has several times since cited “that piece we heard on I-95” as the paradigm of what music would be like in her version of heaven.

Pathetic program notes

Last Saturday we had the opportunity to revisit that musical universe at the Annenberg’s Zellerbach Theater, where the forces of the Philadelphia Singers, Relâche, and Orchestra 2001 combined to perform music by Reich, Glass and the British composer, Gavin Bryars, all under the baton of the Philadelphia Singers’ director, David Hayes.

The concert opened with a performance of Glass’s Persephone for chamber orchestra and chorus. Even though Persephone was originally commissioned by Relâche in 1994, it’s really best described as the incidental music for Robert Wilson’s theatrical production of the same name.

Taken out of context as it was at Annenberg, and without any real help from the anonymous and pathetically inadequate program notes (“…throughout the score are voices, which exist perhaps in an illusion [sic] to a Greek chorus…”), the work, with its wordless choral parts and strangely named sections, was, for me at least, more puzzling than anything else and not particularly compelling musically.

Bryars, the musical bridge

Before this concert, I knew nothing about Gavin Bryars, whose settings of Italian sacred texts, Laude Cortonese— two short works for unaccompanied women’s voices, composed in 2002— preceded the intermission. The program annotator didn’t see fit to supply his birthdate (1963) but enigmatically stated that the Laude “form a fascinating bridge between the musical and vocal styles of Glass and Reich.”

What that could possibly mean? It turned out to be complete nonsense. Bryars seemed to me to be writing an homage to the delicately dissonant choral music of Francis Poulenc from the 1940s, music I happen to be in the midst of rehearsing these days. Whether or not that was his intent (based on my minimal research, Bryars seems to be one of those musical chameleons who can write in any style he chooses), the works are gems in their own right: choral writing whose beauty was justly served by the Philadelphia Singers’ impeccably prepared female voices.

Holocaust survivors

But the evening really belonged to Reich’s You Are (Variations), composed in 2004.

You Are is divided into four sections; in each one, the vocalists sing a different aphoristic philosophical fragment as in this sample, “Explanations come to an end somewhere.”

Several audio clips like this are available on the web; if they indicate Reich’s true intentions, then You Are is a close cousin of his Emmy-winning Different Trains (1988), a chamber work incorporating the recorded conversational fragments of Holocaust survivors. (Different Trains is widely available in many different forms. Here is a representative sample.)

But the version at Zellerbach was anything but a chamber work. The forces of Relâche and Orchestra 2001 combined to form a more or less standard orchestra flanked by a quartet of keyboards on the left and another quartet of mallet percussion– xylophones, marimbas and vibraphone– on the right.

Incomprehensible, but…

I know from personal experience that the Zellerbach’s dry acoustics, which are fine for stage productions, make for about as unforgiving a venue for choral singing as you can imagine. Matched against this instrumental army’s relentless barrages of ostinato rhythms, the only solution was to heavily mike the chorus and have them belt out the text for all they were worth. You could see that the singers, as is the case with all well-prepared choruses, were working their tails off to deliver Reich’s words clearly, but all the audience heard was a wall of incomprehensible sound behind the teeming activity of the orchestra. The result was music much closer in spirit to Music for 18 Musicians, with strong suggestions of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms.

I really don’t know if this conception was driven by the necessity of overcoming Zellerbach’s acoustic shortcomings, or if it was a purely artistic choice– or both– and I really don’t care. I loved every second of it.

Reich composed Music for 18 Musicians an astonishing 35 years ago. Back then, the idea of staying on a chord for minutes at a time was a radically new idea. Today, Music for 18 Musicians and its ancestor, Terry Riley’s In C, have become classics of the late-20th-Century repertory. And here at this concert was Steve Reich, the oldest composer present (by a hair) with the newest work, still treating chords like individual musical biospheres, each with its own pulsating life-forms, and making them sound as fresh and visceral as they did in the 1970s.

My only complaint about You Are was, again, “What? Over so soon?” But, come to think of it, that’s my reaction to all music I love.