In 2016, American icon Steve Reich celebrates his 80th birthday. The CSO’s MusicNOW series, along with Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music, salutes the American composer’s legacy with a diverse program highlighting the breadth and invention of his existing work. Here, Reich comments on the three pieces to be featured at this concert.
Different Trains (1988)
America–Before the War—
Europe–During the War—
After the War
For string quartet and tape
Text by Ludwig Wittgenstein; for three sopranos, two tenors, two vibraphones and two electric organs
Double Sextet (2007)
For two sextets of flute, clarinet, violin, cello, vibraphone and piano
The composer writes:
Different Trains, for string quartet and pre-recorded performance tape, begins a new way of composing that has its roots in my early tape pieces It’s Gonna Rain (1965) and Come Out (1966). The basic idea is that carefully chosen speech recordings generate the musical materials for musical instruments.
The idea for the piece came from my childhood. When I was a year old, my parents separated. My mother moved to Los Angeles and my father stayed in New York. Since they arranged divided custody, I traveled back and forth by train frequently between New York and Los Angeles from 1939 to 1942, accompanied by my governess. While the trips were exciting and romantic at the time, I now look back and think that, if I had been in Europe during this period, as a Jew, I would have had to ride in very different trains. With this in mind, I wanted to make a piece that would accurately reflect the whole situation. In order to prepare the tape, I did the following:1. Record my governess Virginia, then in her 70s, reminiscing about our train trips together.
1. Record my governess Virginia, then in her 70s, reminiscing about our train trips together.
2. Record a retired Pullman porter, Lawrence Davis, then in his 80s, who used to ride lines between New York and Los Angeles, reminiscing about his life.
3. Collect recordings of Holocaust survivors Rachella, Paul and Rachel — all about my age and then living in America — speaking of their experiences.
4. Collect recorded American and European train sounds of the ‘30s and ‘40s.
In order to combine the taped speech with the string instruments, I selected small speech samples that are more or less clearly pitched and then notated them as accurately as possible in musical notation.
The strings then literally imitate that speech melody. The speech samples as well as the train sounds were transferred to tape with the use of sampling keyboards and a computer. Three separate string quartets are also added to the pre-recorded tape and the final live quartet part is added in performance.
Different Trains is in three movements (played without pause), although that term is stretched here since tempos change frequently in each movement. The piece thus presents both a documentary and a musical reality and begins a new musical direction. It is a direction that I expect will lead to a new kind of documentary music video theater in the not too distant future.
The idea for Proverb was originally suggested to me by the singer and conductor Paul Hillier, who thought of a primarily vocal piece with six voices and two percussion. What resulted was a piece for three sopranos, two tenors, two vibraphones and two electric organs, with a short text from Ludwig Wittgenstein. Since Paul Hillier is well-known as a conductor and singer of early music and since I share an interest in this period of Western music, I looked once again at the works of Pérotin (Scholl of Notre Dame, 12th century) for guidance and inspiration.
The three sopranos sing the original melody of the test in canons that gradually augment or get longer. The two tenors sing duets in shorter rhythmic values against held tones from the sopranos. The two electric organs double the singers throughout (except at the very beginning when they sing a cappella) and fill in the harmonics. The piece is in constantly changing meter groupings of twos and threes, giving a rhythmically free quality to the voices. After about three minutes of only voices and organ, the vibraphones enter enunciating these interlocking shifting groups of two and three beats.
The original theme in the voices is then inverted and moves from B minor to E-flat minor. In this contrasting section, the original descending melodic line becomes a rising one. The last part of the piece is one large augmentation canon for the sopranos, returning to the original key of B minor, with the tenors singing their melismatic duets continuously as the canon slowly unfolds around them. This is concluded by a short coda that ends, as the piece began, with a single soprano.
Though the sopranos sing syllabically with one note for each word (and every word of the text is monosyllabic), the tenors sing long melismas on a single syllable. Pérotin’s influence may be heard most clearly in these tenor duets against soprano, which clearly resemble three-part Organum. That same influence plays a more indirect role in the soprano augmentation canons that are suggested by the augmentation of held tenor notes in Pérotin’s Organum.
The short text, “How small a thought it takes to fill a whole life!” comes from a collection of Wittgenstein’s writing titled Culture and Value. Much of Wittgenstein’s work is “proverbial” in tone and in its brevity. This particular text was written in 1946. In the same paragraph from which it was taken, Wittgenstein continues, “If you want to go down deep, you do not need to travel far.”
On Double Sextet
There are two identical sextets in Double Sextet. Each one consists of flute, clarinet, vibraphone, piano, violin and cello. Doubling the instrumentation was done so that, as in so many of my earlier works, two identical instruments could interlock to produce one over-all pattern. For example, in this piece you will hear the pianos and vibes interlocking in a highly rhythmic way to drive the rest of the ensemble.
The piece can be played in two ways: either with 12 musicians or with six playing against a recording of themselves.
The idea of a single player playing against a recording of themselves goes all the way back to Violin Phase of 1967 and extends though Vermont Counterpoint (1982), New York Counterpoint (1985), Electric Counterpoint (1987) and Cello Counterpoint (2003). The expansion of this idea to an entire chamber ensemble playing against pre-recordings of themselves begins with Different Trains (1988), continues with Triple Quartet (1999) and then to Double Sextet. By doubling an entire chamber ensemble, one creates the possibility for multiple simultaneous contrapuntal webs of identical instruments. In Different Trains and Triple Quartet, all instruments are strings to produce one large string fabric. In Double Sextet, there is more timbral variety through the interlocking of six different pairs of percussion, string and wind instruments.
The piece is in three movements (fast, slow, fast), and within each movement, there are four harmonic sections built around the keys of D, F, A-flat and B or their relative minor keys (B, D, G and G-sharp minor). As in almost all my music, modulations from one key to the next are sudden, clearly setting off each new section.
Double Sextet is about 22 minutes long and was completed in October 2007. It was commissioned by eighth blackbird and received its world premiere by that group at the University of Richmond in Virginia on March 26, 2008.
About the composer:
Steve Reich’s musical legacy has been influential on composers and mainstream musicians around the world. His music is known for steady pulse, repetition and a fascination with canons; it combines rigorous structures with propulsive rhythms and seductive instrumental color, and also embraces harmonies of non-Western and American vernacular music (especially jazz). His studies have included Balinese gamelan, African drumming (at the University of Ghana) and traditional forms of chanting of the Hebrew scriptures, in addition to his studies at Cornell University, the Juilliard School and Mills College with Luciano Berio.
Different Trains and Music for 18 Musicians have each earned Grammy Awards, and Double Sextet won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009. Reich’s documentary video opera works — The Cave and Three Tales, done in collaboration with video artist Beryl Korot — have pushed the boundaries of the operatic medium and have been presented on four continents.
Reich’s music has been performed by major orchestras and ensembles around the world, including the New York and Los Angeles philharmonics; London, Sydney, San Francisco, Boston and BBC symphony orchestras; London Sinfonietta; Kronos Quartet; Ensemble Modern; Ensemble Intercontemporain; Bang on a Can All-Stars; Alarm Will Sound, and eighth blackbird. Several noted choreographers such as Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, Jirí Kylián, Jerome Robbins, Wayne McGregor, Justin Peck and Christopher Wheeldon, have created dances to his music.
Reich was awarded the Gold Medal in Music by the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2012. He was named Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in France, as well as a member in the Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts. His honors include the Praemium Imperiale (Japan), the Polar Music Prize (Sweden), the BBVA Award (Spain), the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale, the 2016 Nemmers Prize in Music Composition from Northwestern University, as well as the Schuman Award from Columbia University, the Montgomery Fellowship from Dartmouth College, and the Regent’s Lectureship at the University of California at Berkeley. He has been awarded honorary doctorates from the Royal College of Music in London, the Juilliard School, the Liszt Academy in Budapest and the New England Conservatory of Music, among others.
The 2016–2017 season marks Reich’s 80th birthday, with more than 400 performances in more than 200 countries celebrating his music and legacy. Two new works receive world premieres in fall 2016: Pulse, which received its premiere with the International Contemporary Ensemble, conducted by David Robertson at Carnegie Hall, and Runner, which was performed at London’s Royal Ballet, accompanied by new choreography by Wayne McGregor. Several presenters have announced special concert series and residencies to honor his anniversary, including Lincoln Center, San Francisco Symphony, the Barbican in London, Tokyo Opera City and Carnegie Hall, which has named Reich the Richard and Barbara Debs Composer’s Chair for the 2016-2017 season.
Born in New York and reared there and in California, Reich graduated with honors in philosophy from Cornell University in 1957. For the next two years, he studied composition with Hall Overton, and from 1958 to 1961, he studied at the Juilliard School of Music with William Bergsma and Vincent Persichetti. Reich received his master’s degree in music from Mills College in 1963, where he worked with Luciano Berio and Darius Milhaud.
Reprinted by kind permission of Boosey & Hawkes.