Artistic Director Steven Schick writes about our upcoming All-Reich Program on Monday, January 28:
When Steve Reich was asked what he gleaned from a short study trip to West Africa in 1970 he responded with one word: “Confirmation.” The simplicity of that answer – that what was learned in Africa reinforced that which was already there – is refreshing in today’s climate where composers sometimes scour the ends of the earth – or even the nearest junkyard – for inspiration and material before they examine and hone their own musical language. The frailties of artistic tourism are best skewered by Peter Carey who writes derisively in the opening pages of Illywhacker about his character Annette Davidson, an author who lived twenty-eight years in Australia and a few months in Paris, but wrote about Paris.
After his few months in Africa, Steve Reich didn’t “write about Africa.” He didn’t return to the United States with a backpack full of African rhythms or agogo bells, and while others may have tried to package his rhythmic pieces from the 1970s as deriving from his studies in Africa, he never did. In fact, one might claim that he came back with nothing new at all except the sense that he had already embarked on an interesting path, one that he felt resonated with the musical practices of West Africa. Of course for anyone paying attention to the history of popular music in the United States, this resonance will come as no surprise. Listening to African-American music in any of its many forms, from jazz to rock to country to hip-hop, establishes a deep and intimate rapport with West Africa whether a listener knows it or not. Reich has told me that Africa inspired a profound self-awareness in him; it was like a word he already knew but had never heard.
After he returned from Africa, Reich took several critical steps. Realizing that he needed a community of like-minded musicians he expanded “Steve Reich and Musicians” from the trio it had been in the mid-1960s to eighteen musicians by the mid-1970s. And, he began to write music for this ensemble in a way that capitalized on a collective creative mechanism. This is the meaning of “confirmation”: his experiences in Africa, and their application both to his musical language and to the communal working methodology within his ensemble, led to his most fertile creative period. Drumming, his masterpiece for percussion, voices, and piccolos, was written the year after he returned from Africa, and the ne plus ultra of the Reich opus, Music for 18 Musicians, was begun a few years later in 1974.
In tonight’s concert we present three examples of just this kind of confirmation. We’ll start with the interlocking rhythms of his Clapping Music, played here in a doubled instrumentation for four clappers instead of the usual two. The rhythm is Reich’s re-invention of an African bell pattern, however its application to the composition is all-Reich. In what would become a trademark strategy of rhythms phasing against one another, everyone begins with a unison reading of the rhythm. On a cue half the group shifts the pattern “to the left” by leaving out an eighth-note. Hearing the same rhythm played out-of-phase with itself causes fascinating composite rhythmic structures, as you’ll hear. The phasing group leaves out yet another note and a new composite pattern emerges. Another move produces another pattern and so on until all the options are exhausted and the two sides re-unite in unison.
Electric Counterpoint is perhaps the best known of Reich’s “counterpoint” pieces, scored for live soloist and pre-recorded multi-track accompaniment. It will be played tonight in an alternate version for an ensemble of electric guitars led by David Tanenbaum, a long-time Reich collaborator who has released a solo recording of the piece on New Albion Records.
If Clapping Music is a variation on a rhythm, and Electric Counterpoint a study of multiple lines and textures, Music for 18 Musicians is an essay in harmony. One might even think of it as a Reichean chorale built on a cycle of eleven chords, which open and close the piece. The speed and complexity of the shifting harmonies, especially as the piece opens and all of those different chords are crowded together, makes Music for 18 Musicians the most dense and complex of all large-scale Reich instrumental works and creates several dramatic, harmonically driven points of arrival. This is not only unlike anything we had heard to this point in the Reich output, it is also unlike any music we’ve ever heard.
So what is being confirmed in Music for 18 Musicians? Perhaps it is an alternative view of authorship whereby the music is driven not by a single point of authority – a conductor or a completely fixed score – but by a communal process in which basic decisions are of group concern. Shared decision-making controls the precise number of repetitions of each phrase and by extension the formal shape that arises and by extension of that the emotional aura of the entire performance. Perhaps that which is being confirmed in Music for 18 Musicians is a social view in which shared leadership means that at one moment or another every person on stage has the control of the piece in his or her hands. Everyone is indispensable. We could learn something from that. Perhaps there is also the confirmation of something more basic: that playing together is a source of joy, that after nearly an hour of non-stop playing where the reins of the piece have been passed to everyone on stage at least once, where no one has soloed and where everyone has belonged, there is bliss to be found in arriving fresh, alive, and together.
View the complete schedule of events.