An unusually large crowd nearly filled Sprague Hall for this month’s New Music New Haven concert last night. The reason? This installment’s featured guest composer was Steve Reich, one of the world’s most famous classical musicians and, as the Village Voice proclaimed, “America’s greatest living composer.”
Statements like these are never noncontroversial, but Reich deserves the title as much as anyone. His 35-year career has resulted in a large number of hugely influential and effective works. The four pieces presented on Thursday’s program displayed this body of work in all its diversity.
Reich’s early period was represented by two pieces from the early 1970s, “Music for Pieces of Wood” and the first section of “Drumming.” Both of these works show the influence of Reich’s 1970 study of African drumming, where different rhythmic lines sound simultaneously, each with a separate downbeat. Also present in these pieces is the process-oriented, severe minimalism of Reich’s seminal early tape pieces from the 1960s, “Come Out” and “It’s Gonna Rain.”
“Pieces of Wood” and “Drumming” operate on similar principles. A repeated, pitchless noise defines the rhythmic framework, with subsequent voices adding sounds where there were none before until an astonishingly complex polyrhythmic fabric results. The interlocking fabric swells and fades as players walk away from their instruments and then return to add to the complexity. The form of these works is solely determined by their rhythmic processes, since neither the woodblocks used in “Music for Pieces of Wood” nor the bongos of “Drumming” allow for harmonic or timbral development.
Harmony and timbre come into their own in Reich’s later work. “Music for Mallets, Voices and Organ” (1973) is one of the first pieces in which Reich’s language extends into the harmonic realm, a synthesis perfected in the Sextet (1985). Both of these pieces combine the additive rhythms characteristic of Reich with more sustained lines and an involving if resolutely stripped-down harmonic language.
Reich stresses the importance of ambiguity in his music: between melody and accompaniment, between voices, even between order and chaos. This ambiguity allows for flexibility and musical development even when the materials are as relentlessly simple as Reich’s.
Despite its simplicity, this music is enormously difficult to perform. It requires unwavering concentration over extended periods of time, and one slip of the hand or one lapse of attention can sink a performance. The eight graduate students who make up the Yale Percussion Group can always be counted on to astound, and they played this repertoire as though with one mind. The confidence with which they maintained regular interlocking rhythmic patterns at the brink of chaos was almost dizzying.
Pianists Stephen Buck MUS ’01 and Jennie Jung MUS ’01 also contributed ably to this unwavering precision in the Sextet, as did singers Jessica Wiskus MUS ’01, Tawnie Olson MUS ’00 and Rachael Elliott MUS ’00 in “Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices, and Organ.”
The somewhat intimidating honor of appearing on a program with Reich was shared by composers Marcus Maroney MUS ’01 and John Kaefer MUS ’01. Maroney’s “Four Preludes for Two Clarinets” reveled in the timbral uniformity of the two identical instruments, almost always keeping them very closely spaced. This potential liability was turned to advantage, though, especially in the second and third preludes. None of these short pieces was too long for the limited materials Maroney employed.
Kaefer’s “Colored Landscapes” for flute and piano is another set of short pieces. Throughout, tonally derived harmonies were accented by expressive melodic dissonances in a vaguely jazzy style. Flute pyrotechnics (ably brought off by Sergio Pallottelli MUS ’01) and colorful chords characterized this entertaining, outwardly directed music.