Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Do the Reich Thing

January 18, 2012


Somewhere along the line Steve Reich became a rockstar. It looked that way on Tuesday night when he appeared in Los Angeles alongside the Bang on a Can All-Stars and red fish blue fish at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in a program dedicated entirely to his music. The hall was packed with the biggest crowd I’ve yet seen for one of the L.A. Philharmonic-sponsored Green Umbrella programs dedicated to new(ish) music. And there was an almost party-like atmosphere in the audience filled with young faces and large clusters of people hugging as if they were old friends. Just about everybody who follows classical and/or new music in town was there, and even music director Gustavo Dudamel showed up casually dressed in a polo shirt for part of the evening along with Lionel Bringuier. The evening was a tribute to one of the lions of American music and everyone wanted to be a part of it.

Even Reich himself got into the evening by performing as one of the two hand-clapping parts in 1972’s Clapping Music. The other part was performed by percussionist David Cossin who followed this brief rhythmic introduction with a 2000 work Video Phase. Like Clapping Music, this second work was about variations in rhythmic patters at its most basic and unadorned. In Video Phase, a version of an earlier work for two pianos, Cossin filmed himself playing MIDI percussion pads programmed to reproduce piano sounds in a strict repeating rhythm. The film was played back in live performance with Cossin then playing the same pads in a second part where the original rhythm is repeated and periodically sped up enough to move it slightly out of phase from the original. This process is repeated several times until both tape and live performance are back in sequence. Undoubtedly both of these works, like so much of Reich’s music on the whole, are remarkable for the amount of physical endurance and dexterity they require from the musicians. There is a type of mathematical beauty to them that can’t be overlooked. But both also feel like tricks or high school science experiments at time as well.

The rest of the evening was filled with larger scale works. The evening was anchored with Reich’s masterpiece, Music for 18 Musicians with its complex slowly shifting rhythmic patterns that are spread out between several percussionists, at least 4 pianists and just a few winds and strings. A very similar structure is used in Reich’s 2009 composition 2x5, which was receiving its West Coast premiere that evening. 2x5 is scored for two sets of a five member “band” consisting of a pianist, drummer, and three electric guitar players. The allusion here is to contemporary rock music, although the process of Reich’s shifting rhythmic patterns remains the same moving back and forth between the two ensembles set to mirror one another on stage. 2x5 struck me as a rather sly composition with its popular music references, but both of these later works still carried Reich’s hallmark ebullience. The meditative, Eastern overtones to his work fuse with a distinctly American sound. It was again exceedingly well played by these specialist ensembles, many of whose players know Reich’s music more than just about anybody.

It’s a good vibe, but admittedly for me, it can grow to be a somewhat hollow one. The constant often uncontested optimism in the pieces can create a certain “eternal sunshine of the spotless mind” if you will. Which does have a Zen ring to it, doesn’t it. Reich's music always works best when one can let go and connect with the deeper meditative aspects of it. Perhaps what it cries out for is more of a direct attachment to the natural world. This performance made me harken back to the last time I heard Music for 18 Musicians at the Ojai festival in 2009. There was something about the contrast between the exacting playing of the music outdoors mixed with the sounds of wind through the trees and birds singing that set the whole thing alight in a way I missed indoors. But the surroundings made little difference for Tuesday's enthusiastic crowd who were there to celebrate music they loved and had connected with. And that makes for an exciting evening in and of itself.


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