Thursday, September 14, 2017

Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians: Difference in Focus

The Center for 21st Century Music welcomes Ensemble Signal on September 19 for a performance of Steve Reich’s concert-length Music for 18 Musicians. Please note that the concert begins at the later-than-usual time of 9pm; it will be preceded by a talk by Signal’s co-artistic directors Brad Lubman and Lauren Radnofsky at 8:15pm. Previously, this blog examined long-standing collaborative relationships that led to the concert: between Signal and Steve Reich, and between UB’s music department and the composer. In this post, I introduce the piece itself and contextualize it within a broader history of minimalist music.

Completed in 1976, Music for 18 Musicians is often understood as a turning point within Reich’s compositional development, as a pivot from his strictly-composed, experimental early works to his more conventionally “musical” later works. It also functioned as a pivot in Reich's reputation, catapulting him to widespread renown within both art music and pop music worlds—orchestral commissions followed it, while the ECM recording of the piece sold over 10,000 copies and a live performance of the piece sold out the New York nightclub The Bottom Line. 

To understand where the piece came from, it is productive to consider the intensive earlier musical investigations of Reich and fellow minimalists. Historically, minimalism could be understood as an attempt to negate tonal modes of listening through the use of a limited palette of musical material. While numerous composers of the 1950s (John Cage, Milton Babbitt, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Iannis Xenakis) tried to challenge tonal listening habits by expanding and exhausting bandwidths of material, the younger minimalists attempted to achieve a similar end result through opposite means. If the former composers used discontinuity to overwhelm listeners’ capacities for syntactic listening, the latter use repetition and prolongation to underwhelm this mode of listening, instead encouraging a listening focused on the here and now of live performance.

The degree zero of early minimalism might be LaMonte Young’s X for Henry Flynt (1960), in which a heavy sound or cluster is repeated uniformly, regularly, and for a long period. This is music in extreme close up; there is no possibility of zooming out to orient oneself through anything resembling musical syntax. The piece’s restricted space simultaneously closes and opens: it impedes the possibility of tonal listening, but activates intensified focus on the particulars of the repeated sound’s envelope and spectrum, its interaction with acoustic space, and its status in listeners’ perception and memory. Two successive repetitions of the sound are never identical; the piece frames repetition as a guise for focused perception of subtle differences. Was the most recent repetition of the sound different from the last? If so, did I merely perceive it as being different? In this case, did my ever-changing memory bank of sounds play a role in reframing my perception? In encountering this piece, listeners listen to their own listening. The music does not have “objective” content that exists independently of the act of listening, as in tonal music; its content is the act of listening. Thus while listening in tonal music requires decoding "objective" content; listening in X for Henry Flynt invites open-ended exploration of ambiguous boundary spaces—between same and different, between sound object and perception, and between perception and memory. These broad parameters of listening pertain to much later minimalist music.

For early minimalist composers Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Tony Conrad, and Young, a key challenge was that of orchestrating duration. How can the composer “keep the ball in the air” without resorting to tonal approaches to time? How long must repetition and/or prolongation proceed to disorient tonal listening expectations; at what point does an aesthetically unproductive boredom set in? How can the composer create decisive shifts of perspective even while maintaining the continuity necessary to keep listening in the here and now?

Terry Riley (a former UB Creative Associate) answered these questions with bottom-up variation processes applied to looped melodic cells, while Young and Tony Conrad (a former UB professor) answered these questions through harmony based on resonance. For the younger minimalists Reich and Glass, these procedures perhaps too closely resembled traditional “composerly” decision making, and yet at the same time may have seemed quite arbitrary. In the mid to late 1960s, both Reich and Glass both sought out deterministic algorithmic processes that could determine the unfolding of melodic/rhythmic cells.

While Glass worked with processes of melodic growth and decay, Reich worked with a stricter, deterministic method, focusing on “phasing”—of gradually moving two identical sonic loops out of phase, incrementally changing the phase difference until the material comes back into phase with itself. This provided a strikingly economical way of encouraging listeners to listen to a simple, short sonic object with perpetually changing focus. As Reich explained in his essay “Music as a Gradual Process,” the anonymous, controlling nature of these processes appealed to him; their transparent nature allowed them to shift attention away from syntax and related tonal categories, towards the “impersonal, unintended, psycho-acoustic by-products of the intended process.”

Reich's phasing pieces first employed recorded samples of voices--It’s Gonna Rain (1965) and Come Out (1966)--and then later used live instrumentalists. After working exclusively with phasing for five years, he developed additional ways to vary fixed cells of material: “gradually substituting beats for rests (or rests for beats) within a constantly repeating rhythmic cycle,” “the gradual changing of timbre while rhythm and pitch remain constant.” These techniques feature prominently in Drumming, where they allow the composer to explore a concert-length duration.

In Music for 18 Musicians, Reich further expands his collection of variation processes, allowing for greater scope and flexibility in varying fixed rhythmic and melodic cells. Notably, certain more "conventional" musical possibilities excluded from his previous music take on a prominent role in this piece: harmony, dynamics, and core orchestral instruments (violin, cello, clarinet, bass clarinet). The piece employs the largest ensemble Reich had used to date—his trademark keyboard instruments constitute the core of the ensemble (6 percussionists on marimba, xylophone, and vibraphone without motor and 4 pianists), augmented by melodic instruments (violin, cello, 2 clarinets/bass clarinets) and voices (4 female voices).

Like Reich’s earlier work, Music for 18 is built around a central melodic/rhythmic cell, introduced after the piece's introductory section. (This cell is rhythmically identical to that used in Reich’s earlier piece Clapping Music.) This cell, like a similar one used in Drumming, is 12 pulses long; beneath its surface syncopations, it poses a deeper ambiguity to listeners: is the cell as a whole divided in 3 (3 groups of 4 pulses) or 4 (4 groups of 3 pulses)? While in earlier works, Reich presents traces of two incompatible ways of metrically interpreting a rhythmic cell, in Music for 18, the cell is accompanied by sustaining instruments alternating between two harmonies; the timing of harmonic changes momentarily tips the scales towards a single metric interpretation of the figure.

Indeed, harmony is more to the fore in Music for 18 than in any prior Reich piece. Broadly, the work uses sonorities reminiscent of tonal harmony but decontextualizes them from directional syntactic implications through frozen non-chord tones, unusual registral orderings, lengthy prolongation, and by oscillating between pairs of non-functionally-related chords. While in the domain of rhythm, the work explores contrasting metric interpretations of a 12-pulse rhythmic cell, in the domain of harmony, the work explores contrasting harmonic interpretations of a melody built from the tones of the A major scale. Each of the work’s 11 sections is based on a limited chord or harmonic field, each proposing a unique pitch center orienting the tones of the A major scale: section 1 implies D Lydian, section 2 B Dorian, section 3 F# Aeolian, and so on. (The sequence of 11 chords is also played at the work’s beginning and end, animated with regular pulses.)

Significantly, where Reich's earlier pieces approached form as the gradual unfolding of a linear process (i.e. phasing), form in Music for 18 is more exploratory and flexible, presenting a non-teleological sequence of perspectives on a common rhythmic/melodic object. Music for 18 thus evinces a broader aesthetic shift in Reich's work: while the early phasing pieces use deterministic processes to uncover possibilities that might elude a more conventional composerly intuition, Music reintroduces some of these considerations into the new approaches to structure and listening developed in the earlier works.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Signal plays Reich at the Center: A Culmination of Partnerships

The Center for 21st Century Music is delighted to welcome Ensemble Signal on September 19 for a performance of Steve Reich’s concert-length Music for 18 Musicians. Please note that the concert begins at the later-than-usual time of 9pm; it will be preceded by a talk by Signal’s co-artistic directors Brad Lubman and Lauren Radnofsky at 8:15pm. Coming on the heels of the release of Signal’s acclaimed recording of the piece, the performance marks the culmination of partnerships between Signal and Reich and between the Center and Reich, detailed below. This blog will publish another post in the coming days introducing the piece itself.

Released in 2015, Signal’s studio recording of Music for 18 Musicians has been praised widely and effusively. Awarded the prestigious Diapason d’Or Award (given by reviewers of the French Diapason magazine), the recording received high praise from the composer himself, who wrote that “Signal has made an extraordinary recording of Music for 18 Musicians. Fast moving, spot on and emotionally charged.” Critics have given the album similarly glowing praise, with David Weininger of the Boston Globe writing that “two excellent recordings of Steve Reich’s epoch-making “Music for 18 Musicians” exist already…[including] one by Steve Reich and Musicians…But this new version, by the New York-based Ensemble Signal, bests them both.” The album is available to stream on Spotify; a clip of a live performance of the piece by Signal is available here

Signal’s commitment to Reich’s music goes far beyond this piece. In 2016, the ensemble was involved in 80th birthday concerts of the composer's music at the Miller Theatre, Guggenheim Museum, Carnegie Hall, and Cal Performances, playing Reich’s early works, recent works, and everything in between. This season, Signal has premiered a new Reich work entitled Runner, with upcoming repeat performances at Carnegie Hall and Washington Performing Arts.

Signal’s music director Brad Lubman brings an even more extensive engagement with Reich’s work. Among the many world premieres Lubman has conducted, four are Reich works: Three Tales, Daniel Variations, Radio Rewrite, and Variations for Vibes, Pianos and Strings. Lubman went on to record Radio Rewrite--inspired by songs of the rock band Radiohead--with Signal. The conductor has written and spoken extensively about Reich’s music: in an article on the composer’s website, in an interview with the Rochester City Newspaper, and in an extended audio conversation with Reich himself moderated by WXXI’s Brenda Tremblay (see below).

The UB Music Department’s relationship with Reich goes back even further, to the 1970s, when Reich was on the cusp of his present-day fame. The Creative Associates—an ensemble consisting of fellows at the department’s Center of the Creative and Performing Arts—took Reich’s early work Clapping Music on its 1975 European tour, which included engagements at the BBC, West German Radio, and Warsaw Autumn Festival. The next year, at the second-ever June in Buffalo Festival, then-director Morton Feldman featured the younger composer’s music, which may have had a subtle influence on Feldman’s later explorations of repeated and nearly-repeated patterns. (This period of vibrant activity in the department has since been documented in detail in the book This Life of Sounds: Evenings for New Music in Buffalo, written by former managing director of the Center of the Creative and Performing Arts, RenĂ©e Levine Packer.)

Reich has since been invited to June in Buffalo as composition faculty—in 1987, 2000, 2003, and in 2010, when he received an honorary doctorate from the university. A range of his works have been performed at June in Buffalo: everything from large-scale works like City Life and Three Tales (the latter piece for film and ensemble was part of the 2003 festival’s “Music and Image” focus), chamber works like the Pulitzer-prize winner Double Sextet, and rarely performed works like Six Pianos. Signal’s performance of Music for 18 Musicians later this month will be its Buffalo premiere.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Announcing the 2017-2018 Season

The Robert & Carol Morris Center for 21st Century Music
2017-2018 Calendar of Events

(All concerts in Lippes Concert Hall in Slee Hall unless otherwise noted)

Slee Sinfonietta

SEPTEMBER 19, 2017
9:00 PM
Slee Sinfonietta presents:
Ensemble Signal
Brad Lubman, conductor
Steve Reich – Music for 18 Musicians

OCTOBER 24, 2017
7:30 PM
Slee Sinfonietta
Bernard Rands portrait concert and SUNY Honorary Degree conferral
Bernard Rands – Folk Songs
Bernard Rands – “now again” – fragments from Sappho
Luciano Berio – Linea
David Felder – Coleccion Nocturna

APRIL 24, 2018
7:30 PM
Slee Sinfonietta Presents:
Brad Lubman, conductor
Charles Wuorinen portrait concert
Charles Wuorinen – Spin 5
Charles Wuorinen – Megalith
Charles Wuorinen – Iridule

(Ensemble Signal)

Visiting Artist Series

7:30 PM
Thomas Moore, pianist
Morton Feldman – Triadic Memories

SEPTEMBER 29, 2017
Composer Robert Carl (Hartt School of Music)

NOVEMBER 3, 2017
Composer Eric Moe (University of Pittsburgh)

NOVEMBER 6-8, 2017
Ensemble Linea in residence with Irvine Arditti
November 6: Workshop of UB graduate composers with Ensemble Linea
NOVEMBER 8, 2017
7:30 PM
Ensemble Linea in concert with Irvine Arditti
Featuring the World Premiere of David Felder’s violin concerto Jeu de Tarot

APRIL 16-17, 2018
April 16: Workshop of UB graduate composers with Ensemble Court-Circuit
APRIL 17, 2018
7:30 PM
Ensemble Court-Circuit in concert

(Ensemble Court Circuit)

Co-Sponsored Events

OCTOBER 13, 2017
7:30 PM
Wolf-Steger Fund Concert
Faculty performers include Jonathan Golove, cello, Eric Huebner, piano, and Tiffany Du Mouchelle, soprano.
Program: TBA

OCTOBER 14, 2017
7:30 PM
Eric Huebner and Steve Beck, pianists

JUNE 4-10, 2018
David Felder, Artistic Director

Senior Composers:

Resident Ensembles:

Special Guests: