Sunday, May 13, 2007

Steve Reich Marathon, Columbia College Chicago

[Ed. Note: This is gonna be a long one, and not a particularly funny one. It's not about pop culture, altho it's about something popular and cultural. So feel free to skip or skim to taste. You've officially been warned.]

Steve Reich is my favorite composer, so if you read this be prepared for a whole lotta bias and a smidgen of hyperbole. I've been listening to Reich for more than a decade, so when I found out that Chicago's ICE and New York's So Percussion were doing a "Steve Reich Marathon" for free at Columbia College this past Friday, I kinda had to go. I couldn't believe that the concert started out just about filled to capacity and pretty much stayed that way for the entire four hours. I mean, yeah, it was free, but there were a ton of other things going on that night, and it's not like there was any free food or anything. But the music selection was good, and the performances were pretty amazing. They split the night up into five sets with ten minute breaks between them, splitting the night up into easily digestible thematic chunks and kept things moving at a decent pace. For a concert that required constant stage rearranging and sound checks, I was amazed it lasted exactly four hours as promised -- the organization was pretty impeccable.

The first set started with Clapping Music, which was four guys on stage clapping (I really like the WYSIWYG aspect of most of Reich's titles). It probably sounds like a grade school talent show performance, but check out the original video of Reich (on the right) back in the day. Some of the clapping was a little sloppy at times, but that's really a nitpick -- performing this must be pretty brutal. They also set the precedent for the majority of the performances of the night by not using sheet music or notes of any kind, which is really amazing.

Music For Pieces of Wood was next, which I'd never seen live before. It's basically a shorter, less ornate version of Drumming (which I'll get to later) and the performance was flawless. Again no sheet music.

The first set ended with Different Trains. I showed up a little early and got to watch them do the soundcheck for this, since it's performed by a string quartet playing along to a recording of another string quartet as well as samples of speech and sound effects; the speech samples are the source of the melodies in it, so the strings echo the melodic aspects of the spoken words. There was much gnashing of teeth to get the sound mix right, and it definitely paid off; the levels on everything were just about perfect during the performance. And the cello part during the "1940/1941" transition still gets me every time.

Set two started with the Sonic Youth covered Pendulum Music, serving as the comic relief of the evening. It definitely looks and sounds kind of goofy, with microphones swinging over amps set to feed back, but it's a beautifully simple idea and the final drone when the microphones stopped swinging and just hung steadily over the amps was gorgeous.

Violin Phase was up next, and it was the first time I'd seen it performed by four players rather than a single player with a backing tape of the other parts. Watching the four players helped immensely with figuring out the separate parts, so this was actually edutainment. Bonus!

The second set ended slightly on a down note with Four Organs, which suffered from a) using MIDI keyboards instead of organs and b) a few bum notes here and there (as well as some inconsistent maraca work, but can you really blame him for that? Playing the maracas in Four Organs is basically a couple of minutes away from a permanent case of repetitive motion disorder) which made probably the most difficult piece of the evening even more difficult to listen to. It's the only piece I saw anyone walk out during, which is understandable...there's something about its sonic qualities that makes it a real test -- if you can get through Four Organs without gritting your teeth and grinding your fingernails into an armrest, you're either deaf or weird, and unfortunately I'm not deaf.

Set three wasn't a performance at all; they turned all the lights out and played the original tape pieces It's Gonna Rain and Come Out in their entirety. I've listened to both of these so many times that I thought I would be bored, but instead it turned out to be one of my favorite moments of the show. There's a huge difference between listening to these pieces on headphones or even a home stereo and listening to them in a decent-sized hall; the extra resonant space and boosted volume really emphasized the beautifully strange sonics of both pieces' phase shifting. Come Out, with its overt anti-racism message, sounded absolutely amazing. Its ending was particularly powerful, with the abrupt transition from the looped speech to the speechless reverb fadeout sounding richer than I'd ever noticed before -- which made the interruption of a person walking into the hall about fifteen seconds before it finished all the more irritating.

The fourth set was the one I was least looking forward to. I've never been a big fan of Reich's Counterpoint series for some reason, so the thought of three in a row was a bit unnerving to say the least. But what I've always thought separated a good concert from a great one is its ability to make me appreciate music I've disliked before, and this was a great concert. I ended up really enjoying Vermont Counterpoint; Claire Chase, who runs ICE, pre-recorded her own backing tracks for accompaniment and her obvious enthusiasm for the piece really sold me on it for the first time. I'd never seen it live before, and never realized it required constant switching between three different flutes, which was really amazing to watch.

New York Counterpoint has always been my favorite of the Counterpoints, with its first movement including pulses reminiscent of the start of Music For 18 Musicians. Plus the whole clarinet/Gershwin thing just makes it feel so stereotypically New York, and this performance of it was really engaging.

The Pat Metheny-recorded Electric Counterpoint is one of my least-favorite Reich pieces, though I'm not quite sure why. I love Discipline-era King Crimson but I think they did "Reich on guitar" better than he did. I don't know if it's the timbre of the guitars or the style of playing, but something about it sounds New Agey to me and the concert didn't do much to change that for me. Using Pat Metheny's original recording as the backing track rather than a special re-recording like they did for Vermont Counterpoint probably didn't help. This was really the only time I got sleepy during the show, but at over three hours into it I certainly can't blame the performance for that.

The final set consisted only of part one of Reich's most heavily African influenced piece, Drumming, which I've seen live three times now (once with Reich performing). So Percussion did a great job, and it felt very similar to the other two performances I've seen; the transitions were seamless, the tempo was utterly precise and, unbelievably, I didn't hear anyone mis-strike or accidentally click their sticks (which happened at both of the others). The only accident came when one player dropped a stick, but it was at a moment when all four performers were playing and he was pretty much doubling another player's part at the time so it was just barely noticeable. It was a fantastic end to an amazing concert. I haven't listened to this much of Reich's music in one sitting since I bought the 1965-1995 box set ten years ago, and it was a much-needed reminder of why I love his music so much: its complex simplicity, its connections to African music and jazz, its rhythmic tonality, its highly philosophical concepts (both humanistic and purely abstract), and its quietly meditative qualities are pretty much everything I could ever want out of music.


Blogger :> said...

Dang. I really wish I'd gone to that. I'm glad you got to, though. Yay for transcendent experiences!

What I experienced of Looptopia that night was a total bust except for the punk marching band, which I couldn't see and couldn't hear as well as would have been preferable.

9:59 AM  

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