Monday, June 30, 2008

[outsideleft] Steve Reich: Life, Death and Agitated Particles

Steve Reich
Daniel Variations

While giving Daniel Variations a final listen, I was waiting in line to put my noodle bowl from the Vietnamese grocery in the microwave. The woman in front of me in line had a great looking lunch: a leftovers plate of pork chops and glazed carrots over some kind of wild rice, making my sketchy “spicy beef rice cake” seem all the more dubious a choice of something to eat; the aroma wafting up from her meal only hammering the point home when it came my turn.

Watching this cardboard bowl go through its alchemical process in the little glass turntable, I saw the similarities to the music I to which I was listening. Pork chop lady probably listens to R&B or classic rock, something as predictable and satisfying as the meal she was about to eat. Neither takes much of a leap.

Steve Reich makes a different tasting but immediately digestible and delicious music. Among the minimalist composers with which he is reluctantly lumped, Reich holds both popular recognition (his “Electric Counterpoint” forms the base of The Orb’s classic “Little Fluffy Clouds” for instance) and respect from the academy, but the music he makes hardly passes for what most people call music. He builds in repetitions of small phrases, sometimes just pulses, over time, letting melodies slowly unfold out of the cloud. His music sounds African, alien, antiseptic, analytic yet ultimately warm and universal; pleasant verging on New Age (I would imagine the early settlers of Windham Hill would readily admit his influence) yet with just enough tension to keep from disappearing altogether.

Daniel Variations, in four parts” opens with open handed tone clusters on the piano and the sudden entrance of a choir, intoning alternating texts from the book of Daniel and from the diaries of Daniel Pearl, the journalist assassinated by religious extremists in Pakistan in 2001. Much like the way he uses melodies, Reich tends to choose a single line, break it down into atomic parts and have his choir slowly issue forth the line over several minutes, sweeping over a percolating piano and marimba choir.

The second movement involved the dissection of “My name is Daniel Pearl. (I’m a Jewish American from Encino, California.)” over eight and a half minutes, the voices asserting the name, identity, occupation and origin of the subject, much in the way that Pearl must have to his captors, but also in the way we all constantly reassert our identity, our reason for being where we are, tracing our lines over and again back to the start. It can be said that not much happens in a Steve Reich piece, but the reality is that everything is happening at once, systems are evolving and decaying just to maintain that virtual stasis of being alive, assertions and reassertions of thoughts and themes stoking the engines of existence. Like the weird salty bowl of food, shipped from half the world away, warmed up by exciting its lowest molecules, Steve Reich makes a heady combination.

Filling out the CD is the less programmatic “Variations for Vibes, Piano and Strings,” hearkening back to the fast-slow-fast form of the more Apollonian "New York Counterpoint" and "Electric Counterpoint" pieces. The expansive opening movement allows you to witness time and melody get stretched over each other, bits suddenly snapping back to regular size only to be stretched again. Instead of the voice of man, we get the voice of all mankind humming away in this instrumental piece. In fact, when we hit the sentimental slow movement, it is as if we are ejected from the seat of some hyper-complicated ride, left mid-air to witness the whole of the amusement park for a minute, only to get caught by the spinning arms of another ride at the final movement. Here, though, we have seen the whole of the carnival, we’ve experienced the heaven and earth of it, and we can enjoy this new spinning contraption in the light of greater knowledge. This is the joy of Steve Reich’s music: he uses the lull of overload to acclimate us and then jettisons us out into the air to do something with this knowledge. It’s an experience as profound as being born, as mundane as answering the ding on the microwave and as meaningful as seeing how the two are inextricably, somehow, connected.



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