Closing in on rock 'n' roll

Friday July 27, 2012

NORTH ADAMS - Make no mistake: Steve Reich isn't going rock 'n' roll.

But the American composer, celebrated for a diverse body of work written and performed over more than 50 years, is getting closer than he has before.

His 2008 composition "2 x 5" was his first written for the rock-like lineup of electric bass, drums, two electric guitars and piano. It's among the Reich works featured Saturday in this year's Bang on a Can Marathon, boasting six hours of music by Reich and other composers, played by ensembles culled from the Bang on a Can All-Stars and other faculty members of the BOAC summer institute, plus institute fellows.

"2 x 5" flowed out of the driving rhythms of his " Double Sextet," which netted Reich a Pulitzer Prize in 2009. The two interlocking pianos in that piece created a very strong rhythm that caused Reich to muse that it was his version of rock and roll. "Of course, that was a metaphor," says Reich, who is the composer in residence at Bang on a Can's threeweek festival, in a telephone interview.

"I thought, what if that wasn't a metaphor? What if it was literally true? But ("2 x 5") is a Steve Reich piece for rock instruments," rather than true rock music, he says. "I'm basically writing my own piece, but these different instruments are going to get me into something very different than 'Double Sextet' or any other piece of mine."

Reich is going a step further with "Radio Rewrite," a piece he's preparing for a debut by the London Sinfonietta next April in which he's re-cast elements from two songs by trailblazing rock group Radiohead - "Everything in Its Right Place" and "Jigsaw Falling Into Place."

It's written for flute, clarinet, string quartet, two vibraphones, two pianos and, for the first and last of its fifth movements, an electric bass, and "doesn't wear its rock 'n' roll on its sleeve," he explains.

"It looks at two of their songs and says, I'm interested in this harmonic progression, this baseline, this fragment of a melody, and I use them very much as I choose. There are moments where you will recognize something from them, but mostly you won't. You'll say, 'where's the Radiohead?' But if you look at the score and whatnot, you would see it and you would recognize it."

The idea came after Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood played a version of Reich's " Electric Counterpoint" at a Polish music festival last fall. Reich says he's particularly interested in the interplay between popular music and what might be called classical.

" This is the way Western music normally was," he says, offering a list of crossover elements, from the folk song embedded in Beethoven's sixth symphony to the work of Béla Bartók. This type of interplay was interrupted, Reich says, by the rise in popularity of Arnold Schoenberg's twelve- tone method. (A mid-century vogue for inward- looking compositions tended to forsake the populist elements of earlier musical movements.) " It's only in this abberant period of when I went to school and before that there's this artificial wall erected between the streets and the concert hall, if you like. One thing it fell to my generation to do was to open up the windows and open up the doors and have the normal back and forth renewed. It was nothing new," Reich says.

He came to prominence with artful manipulations of recorded sound and wrote compositions based on slight variances among tape players as well as finely nuanced counterpoints demanding precise execution.

Though permanently associated with the Minimalist movement and its penchant for methodical repetition, he's also branched into multimedia opera and written major pieces like "Daniel Variations" and " WTC 911" that weave ancient texts, found sounds, and pre- recorded instrumentals into a chamber music setting. He's particularly fond of doubling or tripling traditional string sections, to make for intricate counterpoints among identical instruments.

Like much of his more recent work, "2 x 5" is designed to be played by either a large ensemble or a smaller one that performs against a pre-made recording of itself. The Bang on a Can All Stars premiered the piece at Carnegie Hall last year as part of a tribute to the composer's 75th birthday. (Saturday's concert will feature a full, 10-member interpretation.) Other Reich compositions in the marathon include "Eight Lines" and " Cello Counterpoint," which was written for sometime BOAC collaborator Maya Beiser, accompanied by recordings of seven other cello parts, but will be performed Saturday with a full retinue of eight cellists.

"For me, instrumentation is my inspiration," Reich says. "It's the decision to make."

The marathon will also inclue George Crumb's "Ancient Voices of Children," Lou Harrison's "Violin concerto," and work by many other contemporary composers, including Bang on a Can artistic directors Michael Gordon, David Lang and Julia Wolfe.


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