Five hours of repetitive music on a Sunday evening may be a hellish way for some to end the week; fortunately, I belong in the second category. A concert series named “Steve Reich Unlimited” therefore required no further selling points, though performed by the Kronos Quartet was clearly the cherry on top. Celebrating the prolific composer’s 80th birthday, concert venues in Europe and America, including London’s Barbican and New York’s Carnegie Hall, have decided to mark this event by programming a wide variety of Steve Reich’s works. It was now time for Paris’ celebration.

Kronos Quartet © Jay Blakesberg
Kronos Quartet
© Jay Blakesberg

Seeking to focus on his career and impact, the concerts highlighted both the influence of the rhythmic and repetitive ideals pervasive throughout Reich’s repertoire but also how the composer gradually developed ideas of rhythmic repetition from his earlier works into something more complex over the years. Spread over two concerts, the first comprised solely of the Kronos Quartet’s performance of Reich’s music for string quartet: the Triple Quartet(2001), WTC 9/11 (2010), and Different Trains (1988); the programme even included an extract for string quartet from Reich’s opera The Cave (1993).

Though fascinating to observe the differences in the various works for the same ensemble, Steve Reich’s works for string quartet are naturally similar in their sonority and overall aesthetic. Each work undeniably captures the distinctive essence of the message each is trying to convey (be it war, terrorism etc), but I find myself unfortunately somewhat at odds with Reich’s socio-politically engaged music, and often miss the pure and almost animalistic nature of his rhythmically-focused compositions. Personal preferences aside, the Kronos Quartet’s performance offered much food for thought. Performing the Triple Quartet with microphones and recorded tapes (of themselves performing quartets 2 & 3), the Kronos were able to match the broadcast sound and blend in perfectly. Unsurprisingly, the ensemble offered a performance feeling natural and unfettered with conscious attempts to stay in time or together: rather, the music naturally attains its desired state of gradually-evolving perpetual motion.

Alongside Different Trains, Reich’s “multimedia opera” The Cave is one of the first examples of his use of speech melody, using recorded speech as a source of musical material, from which melodies are derived and developed over time. Alongside WTC 9/11 and Different Trains, both major works by Reich also focused on the use of speech melody, it eventually became difficult to create a distinction between the works: the similar use of rhythmic repetition and vocal fragments within all three works gradually lose their impact and individuality; this is naturally the risk of a concert solely focused on one aspect of a composer’s repertoire. Disappointingly, the noticeable use of microphones often resulted in the quartet’s sound being drowned out by the recordings. Cellist Sunny Yang’s high notes in Different Trains, for example, mimicking the train’s high-pitched steam whistles, lacked the visceral and almost painful quality that is usually felt during a performance of this work.

Steve Reich © Wonge Bergmann
Steve Reich
© Wonge Bergmann

After a concert of works by Steve Reich came a concert by musicians influenced by Steve Reich. Not only were we afforded the luxury of witnessing a short evolution of Reich’s music by Kronos, we would also be able to witness the legacy of his work within today’s music.  Aptly named “Reverberations”, this concert would indeed showcase the effects of Reich’s works throughout classical and even non-classical music.

Interestingly, the Berlin-based ensemble s t a r g a z e did not perform an original work of their own but rather a live “remix” of Reich’s Music for Pieces of Wood. Now performed by ten musicians on a variety of classical instruments, the work nonetheless retained the central elements of the original, with the important and unmistakable rhythmic patterns still wholly recognizable. S t a r g a z e are a curious ensemble, clearly classically trained yet fully at ease with a far more modern performance, almost resembling a confident pop group. Regardless of their background, under careful and strict conducting by André de Ridder, the performance was tight and exciting. 

Performing in collaboration with the American duo Matmos, famous for their experimental electronic creations that call back to the early days of music concrète, s t a r g a z e returned for the world première of Emit Overcast Mesh. A hybrid composition for electronic and acoustic instruments, and even vocal samples from Reich himself, Emit Overcast Mesh is an original work, unashamed of its “Reichian” influences. The work is undoubtedly interesting and thought-provoking, though the sudden and eclectic changes between sections made for an often confusing experience, giving the sensation of being “yanked” from one idea to the next without much transition, and without much overall direction or drive, the work’s finale falls somewhat short and unexpected. However, the work was nonetheless performed masterfully, and the voluntarily sudden rhythmic and textural transitions clearly posed no problems for the attentive performers.

Another “Reich-remix” followed, at the hands of French composer and musician Christophe Chassol. Performing Six Pianos, Chassol gave Reich a taste of his own medicine in the form of a remix full of phasing, sampling, and even speech melody of Reich’s own voice describing the work. In many ways, when listening to Chassol’s music one cannot help but feel that he is picking up where Reich left off, particularly when listening to Chassol’s own work Indiamore. Based on video footage of a trip to India, Chassol “scores” the various recordings during his journey, weaving them all into one final creation. No longer subservient to the music, the voices used in the music almost take on the role of a live solo performance. Whereas Reich used voices as musical material, almost as an instrument, Chassol tailors his music to the voices, before then tailoring those very same vocal segments back into musical loops in order to construct an overall structure. Chassol has essentially taken Reich’s logic to new levels.

A fantastic finish to a fantastic concert: three unique ensembles, three unique sounds; and yet they all reveal one common origin.

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