A successful performance of Steve Reich’s music requires performers with stamina, a groove, and an audience willing to come along for the ride. The music itself is at its best when Reich layers gesture on top of gesture, creating a complex rhythmic tapestry that can put listeners into a trance and trigger unexpected emotions.

ACME performing at (Le) Poisson Rouge © Tristan Cook
ACME performing at (Le) Poisson Rouge
© Tristan Cook

Marking the 11th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, Tuesday’s performance of his three string quartets at (Le) Poisson Rouge offered a glimpse of these elements. The program, presented in chronological order, included Reich’s landmark 1988 Different Trains, a Holocaust memorial; his 1998 Triple Quartet for three string quartets (or one string quartet and tape); and the world premiere of the all-live version of his 2010 commission WTC 9/11, also for three quartets but usually performed by four players and a recording of themselves.

As a young child, between 1939 and 1941, Reich travelled by train across the country with his governess on visits to his divorced parents. Different Trains reflects the composer’s awareness that at the same time in Europe, his fellow Jews were taking very different train journeys. The piece is often called one of Reich’s finest works. In it, he pioneered the use of what he calls “speech melodies,” drawing musical motives from brief spoken texts, which provide melodic material for the entire work. Reich includes words from his governess Virginia, a retired train porter and three Holocaust survivors. The rough recordings of their words bubble hauntingly through the string quartet playing against a tape of themselves, filled with repetitive textures that evoke speeding locomotives, train whistles and, when discussing the war, screaming air raid sirens.

The instruments accompany and imitate the voices, but the pace isn’t always at the perpetual motion of trains. Especially haunting is the anecdote at the end of the piece, told by one of the Holocaust survivors, recounting a girl whose beautiful singing voice pleased the Germans. The musical line is at first more angular and snarky than might be expected, then achingly lyrical, before it vanishes. Reich’s music is so rhythmically complex that playing the notes correctly is a challenge in itself. But the American Contemporary Music Ensemble brought far more to the performance than just the accurate execution of Reich’s intricate rhythms, bringing sincere thought and meaning to the longer melodic lines.

Conductor Donato Cabrera and eight players joined ACME for the Triple Quartet, the one wordless piece on the program. It contains many of Reich’s signature techniques: long lyrical lines over jumpy polyrhythms, and a constant interplay of syncopated imitation between instruments. But the work – inspired partly by Bartók and Schnittke – has its own dissonant flavor, with the outer movements vigorously cycling through the keys of E, G, B flat, C sharp, and back to E, and the central movement spinning out an E minor melody into a canon. Like WTC 9/11, Triple Quartet is usually performed by one live quartet playing against a recording of themselves, which tends to ease ensemble issues. In this all-live performance, the 12 players kept a convincing groove, though they looked somewhat relieved when they took their bows.

If Different Trains is a highly personal narrative that triggers a deep emotional response to a broader shared tragedy, WTC 9/11 somehow falls short of achieving the same. As in the earlier work, the melodic material is shaped by samples of spoken text, in this case from emergency responders, neighborhood residents, and singers who chant Hebrew prayers. The frantic calls of “May-day! May-day!” from a New York fireman and the baleful announcements from Aerospace Defense Command are chilling on their own, so much so that the accompanying music faded into the background.

Perhaps one reason why text and music did not serve each other was the improvement in audio recording from 1988’s Different Trains to the 2010 testimonials. The voice recordings gained crispness, but also lost their melody. The simple oscillating thirds of “From Chicago to New York”, the first spoken line of Different Trains, are more audible than the words themselves. In the second movement of WTC 9/11, the words of the speech recordings were easier to understand, but dominated any melody in the voice or the imitative instruments. The resulting music in this movement, the longest of the three, contained the least convincing writing of the work, with the instruments merely echoing long passages of clearly enunciated text. Moreover, the reflections of eyewitnesses nine years after the fact were significantly less potent than the emergency responder excerpts in the first movement.

WTC 9/11 concludes with recordings of Hebrew prayers for the end of life, accompanied in open intervals by low strings. These were the recordings most difficult to hear, making them the most evocative. It was enough to keep the audience in prayerful silence, waiting more than a minute before applauding.

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