REICH Double Sextet. _2x5 • Read more class="ARIAL12">eighth blackbird; Bang on a Can • NONESUCH 524853 (42:50)
With the awarding of the Pulitzer Prize to Steve Reich for his Double Sextet in 2009, a new sort of legitimacy has been bestowed on music that 40 years ago wasn’t taken seriously by many “serious” musicians. Reich suggests (in the interview contained in the CD booklet) that it would have been “nice” to have received the prize for such pieces as Drumming, Music for 18 Musicians, or Different Trains, but that he considers Double Sextet to be one of his best. The works named above signaled major sea changes in their composer’s music and were perhaps more worthy of such recognition; still, the awarding of the Pulitzer, however belated, must be gratifying to this composer.
The piece was written for the instrumentation of eighth blackbird: flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, vibraphone (more properly a metallophone, since the vibrato effect is turned off); as with the Counterpoint series, Different Trains, and Triple Quartet, this piece can be played by two identical ensembles, or by one playing against a recording of itself (as on this CD).
Reich composed a sextet 25 years ago, but the new work bears little resemblance to its erstwhile namesake. True, its percussive, ostinato-driven opening in the pianos (doubled by the vibes) is similar to the earlier piece, but the short melodic phrases played by the ensemble of flute, clarinet, violin, and cello are more reminiscent of the music of the Octet (now established as Eight Lines); there are also occasional abrupt interjections of slower music into the propulsive moto perpetuo of the first and third movements, which, in most of the earlier pieces, signaled a transition to the next movement, rather than rhythmic variety within one; these provide some dramatic and effective breath-catching.
As in many of the instrumental compositions written since The Desert Music, changes in rhythm, key, and melody occur much more quickly than in the phase pieces of Reich’s early career. The overall form of Double Sextet is tripartite, similar to Tehillim or the Triple Quartet—fast, slow, fast. Voiced primarily by the strings and winds, the slow movement’s melancholy spirit recalls the slow middle section of the Triple Quartet, with the piano and vibraphone providing a gentle accompaniment. The third movement erupts suddenly and returns to the momentum and character of the first.
There is a perfectly blended quality to the sound of the ensemble of flute-clarinet-violin-cello from which one can tease out the individual voices, though it takes concentration; the interplay between the recorded and live performers is another facet to explore. It is this preoccupation with the processes of the sounding music that links all of Reich’s instrumental works, from the earliest phase pieces to this new one, and it is that concern with process that sets Reich apart from his peers.
The recorded sound (of both works), like that of most of Judith Sherman’s productions for this composer (presumably made with his blessing if not his participation), is incisive, full-bodied, and detailed (though there could be a bit more clarity in the individual voices of Double Sextet—the texture is quite concentrated and thick). It will be interesting to compare subsequent recordings when they arrive; for now, these are obviously definitive.
I have no idea if a pop-music reference was intended by the title of Reich’s new rock band piece, but the Rolling Stones’s second British EP was titled 5x5 and an LP in the U.S. carried the title 12x5, each title indicating the number of songs performed by the group’s five musicians. In this case, the title refers to two bands of five members each (two guitars, bass guitar, piano, and drum kit). Reich hasn’t shown much interest in rock music before, though Four Organs was written to be performed by four electric organs—Reich had in mind the sort of sharp attack of the Farfisa organ used by most pop groups of the early 60s; he used the same organ sound in several other pieces, but they don’t sound like rock music.
Reich refers (in the booklet interview) to Duke Ellington’s opinion that there are only two kinds of music, good and the other kind, and Reich invokes that kind of simple distinction when he suggests that the difference between rock music and classical music is that the former isn’t notated while the latter is. If one approaches 2x5 in that spirit (rather than as rock music), it works as an essay in rhythm and color.
Reich’s signature interplay between identical ensembles is the unique element here. This piece is also in a fast-slow-fast structure. The first section opens with a punchy pulse in the electric basses augmented by pianos and guitars, and this is essentially the rhythm section throughout the entire piece, as the ensemble goes through chord progressions. The drum kit provides syncopation in a choppy and not terribly imaginative way—no cymbals or toms are utilized, for example; it is reminiscent of the “Typing Music” section of The Cave. The second, or lead, guitars add chiming chords. There are three key changes, but the patterns in the instruments essentially remain static.
The brief middle section begins with the steady chording of guitars (the rhythm guitars) while the lead guitars add the chiming chords from the first section (basses and pianos double the rhythm guitars). There are three key shifts in the chord sequence in this section as well. The last, fast section is initiated by the rhythm guitars and basses providing the pulse; the lead guitars play a genuine solo, alternating with the high chiming chords as the movement continues (there are two further key changes); the drums enter with the mechanistic part from the first section.
The nearest rock music analogy to this work that I know is the propulsive, bass guitar-driven music in Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, but the Oldfield work is the more challenging and interesting within the rock genre (interestingly enough, he was obviously influenced by both Reich and Philip Glass). Reich was able to successfully invest works like the Sextet and Electric Counterpoint with a real groove, but the rock idiom doesn’t seem to come as naturally, and 2x5 seems more an earnest experiment than a joyful product of real commitment.
The Pulitzer committee described Double Sextet as “a major work that displays an ability to channel an initial burst of energy into a large-scale musical event, built with masterful control and consistently intriguing to the ear.” The piece is an exhilarating rush that sweeps you up, allows you to pause while the central movement offers more meditative fare, and then propels you along to the end. It is as entertaining and involving as the Sextet and Eight Lines, and admirers of those pieces will be happy with this new one. I am less sure of 2x5, though it tends to grow on you and is worthy of further investigation.
Double Sextetby Steve Reich Orchestra/Ensemble:
Period: 21st Century Written: USA Notes: 2009 Pulitzer Prize winning composition.
Im Munro, flute
Michael J. Maccaferri, clarinet
Matt Albert, violin
Nicholas Photinos, cello
Matthew Duvall, vibraphone
Lisa Kaplan, piano
2x5by Steve Reich Orchestra/Ensemble:
Bang on a Can
Period: 21st Century Written: USA Notes: Bang on a Can:
Bryce Dessner, Mark Stewart, electric guitars
Robert Black, electric bass
Evan Ziporyn, piano
David Cossin, drums