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Steve Reich: WTC 9/11 / Kronos Quartet

Release Date: 09/20/2011 
Label:  Nonesuch   Catalog #: 528236   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Steve Reich
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Kronos QuartetSo PercussionSteve Reich and Musicians
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

REICH WTC 9/11. 1 Mallet Quartet. 2 Dance Patterns 3 1 Kronos Qrt; 2 & Percn; 3 Steve Reich and Musicians NONESUCH 528236 (60:34)

There are two kinds of music on this disc. The pieces are all of recent vintage Read more (though Dance Patterns is 10 years old), and all bear the kind of simple titles that Reich favors. The title piece, however, has explicitly historical (as well as other) connotations that distinguish it from the others as well as from most of the composer’s other work.

Those listeners familiar with Different Trains will be conversant with the compositional techniques employed in the new piece (written in 2010): Three string quartets perform with recorded voices, either live or with one playing live accompanied by two recordings of itself (as here); tones of the recorded voices are mimicked by the instruments, and the voices are also manipulated, the final vowels becoming elongated, creating more varied musical effects. Reich has used the voices of air traffic controllers, New York firemen on the scene, friends and neighbors of the Reichs, and women who kept vigil outside the Medical Examiner’s Office.

Unusually for Reich, each movement is given a title other than just a tempo indication: “9/11,” “2010,” and “WTC.” The first movement opens with a repeating electronic tone and alarm sounds; violins begin to repeat the tone as the voices enter. The violins then play longer phrases alternating with sharper, jabbing phrases as the viola and/or cello mimic the tones of the voices. The voices in this section are those of air traffic controllers and emergency services personnel; the voices are sometimes hard to understand, but this only enhances the sense of urgency in the movement. This first section is just over three-and-a-half minutes long.

The second section is longer and slower. The voices here are those of neighbors and Reich family members, recalling the events of Sept. 11. The music is subdued as the voices are imitated by the quartet, and then the oscillating, pulsing music of a second quartet returns. More melodic interjections are heard, and the elongated vowels of the voices become part of the background pattern. The pulsing ceases, and the voices are accompanied by longer, mournful phrases as the devastation is recalled.

The final section is elegiac, voices now chanting and singing, accompanied by the strings; this section is reminiscent of Tehillim . A voice is then heard to say, “The world to come, I don’t really know what that means.” Sharp phrases from the quartet signal a return to the electronic pulse, a voice intones, “And there’s the world, right there,” and then a final chord ends the work.

Reich has skillfully blended music of the three quartets (with much credit accruing to Kronos), so that it is often difficult to distinguish one quartet from the others. Though in one sense this new work is a companion piece to Different Trains , the immediacy of the documentary voices, and recollections of this one devastating moment have an entirely different effect. While one can imagine, with Reich, the fact of the different trains of that eponymous piece, the impact of the events of 10 years ago is still visceral. Reich’s spare, occasionally angry, but also incredibly sad accompaniment to these reminiscences is masterly. The critic Alex Ross, referring to Different Trains , wrote, “As the string instruments sing along to those memory-shrouded sounds, they don’t tell us what to feel; they set forth a glittering grid, on which we can plot our own emotions.” Those words are equally applicable to this new piece.

The remainder of the program has none of the emotional impact of the title piece. Both works inhabit that uniquely Reichian world of percussion music using mallet instruments (and pianos in Dance Patterns ). The three-movement Mallet Quartet (2009) opens with pulsing in the two marimbas in a quick, syncopated rhythm; two vibraphones play off the marimba rhythm, exploring more melodic phrases but staying within the same rhythm.

The second movement is slow, with somber rhythmic patterns as the vibes take a more meditative melodic journey, the marimbas adding the occasional punctuation, blending more completely with the vibes. The third movement interrupts this reverie with the marimbas again asserting a faster pattern, the vibes reverting to the chiming, exploratory phrases. Throughout the work, the marimbas have been moving into higher registers, from the mellow low tones to more aggressively bright ones. It’s almost like compressing the 90 minutes of Drumming into the 14 minutes and 40 seconds of this new piece, adding quicker key changes along the way.

Dance Patterns is a short work (about six minutes) subdivided into five sections played continuously. The three fast sections feature two pianos playing a jazzy rhythmic theme in unison, with paired vibes and xylophones in counterpoint. In the two slower sections, the two pianos play in counterpoint with punctuations from the mallet instruments. The piece, written to accompany a film, seems more like a footnote in the company of the two more substantial works on this disc. It was recorded in 2004 and I believe it was included as an MP3-only bonus piece on an earlier release.

WTC 9/11 is a substantial work both in terms of Reich’s own catalog and as a memorial to the victims of the attacks on the World Trade Center. The Mallet Quartet is in some ways a return to Reich’s Minimalist roots, but it is enhanced by the kinds of melodic explorations that have become a part of most of Reich’s music for the past 30 years. Dance Patterns is an entertaining appendix to the other two. Reich fans will want this disc, but everyone should hear the title piece. (Note: This disc is packaged with a bonus DVD of a live Sö Percussion performance of the Mallet Quartet , but it was not included with my review copy.)

FANFARE: Christopher Abbot
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Works on This Recording

WTC 9/11 by Steve Reich
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Kronos Quartet
Mallet Quartet by Steve Reich
Orchestra/Ensemble:  So Percussion
Dance Patterns by Steve Reich
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Steve Reich and Musicians

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