Steve Reich

Steve Reich, Bang on a Can All-Stars, red fish blue fish at Disney Hall January 17

In celebration of his 75th birthday, Steve Reich and his longtime collaborators Bang on a Can along with percussion group red fish blue fish presented several of ReichÕs most heralded works. His Clapping Music was performed by Reich and BonaC percussionist David Cossin, who precisely and you might say with a kind of good humor slapped out tricky rhythms that move in and out of phase with each other, producing a disorienting effect. It is a piece that rewards very close listening, which the adoring crowd seemed quite willing to provide. Cossin then did a spellbindingly machinelike version of ReichÕs Piano Phase as Video Phase, wherein Cossin, striking MIDI trigger-pads, played against a video projection of himself playing the other ŅplayerÕsÓ part of the score, creating dense polyrhythms as the patterns combined and coalesced.

Featuring minimalist granddad Terry RileyÕs guitarist son Gyan Riley (nice touch, that), the West Coast premiere of a 2009 piece titled 2X5 was an exhilarating and beautifully chorded grouping for electric guitars, electric bass, pianos and drum kits. The piece was originally written for an ensemble to play against a recording of itself; Reich rescored this one for added guitars, which burst and squall in short, competing and complementing melodic patches over three movements. With its rapid shifts of mood via tempi and the strangely profound benevolence in its stray blasts of melody and instrumental voicings, at times the hard-rocking 2X5 harkens in emotional tone back to ReichÕs 1974 Music for 18 Musicians.

Ironically, however, this nightÕs Music for 18 Musicians did not fare as well as it ought to have in part owing to an ill-conceived electric amplification and a pretty literal-minded reading of the score. In fact 18 Musicians is a delicate thing, ultimately; the assembled forces played their parts with accuracy and an appealing joy. But you canÕt just play the notes, you canÕt just whack at the percussives and saw away at the strings. This is a piece that has to breathe, calmly, gently, just as it was designed to do, with the cello, clarinets and voices holding phrases as long as a human might extend a breath.

The sound in Disney Hall, too, is such a bright and pinpoint accurate thing, and it can be (albeit not very often) the wrong sound for certain kinds of music. Could be 18 Musicians is such a case; while one couldnÕt overly fault the playing of the Bang on a Can/red fish blue fish ensembles, one could carp about the volume level, which was needlessly high and produced a shrill ringing in the ears. (IÕm told it was ReichÕs idea to crank it up.)

More fundamentally, the pieceÕs combination of strings and perhaps the higher piano or mallet tones clash to produce a harmonic quavering/wobbling; this is heresy, but I wonder if Reich himself has heard that and ever considered a slight rewrite to avoid those moments of uncomfortable tonal disagreement (which are not the same as musical overtones). IÕve also long thought that this piece could stand a bit of a trim, notwithstanding its mesmeric magic via sheer length; there are at least two patches in the second ŅhalfÓ where attention begins to wander, where the harmonic shifts and rhythmic variations just donÕt come quickly enough. These intervals are always accompanied by restless shuffling of feet and hands by audiences, as they were at Disney Hall. On the other hand, IÕve never seen so many smiling faces.
ŠŠ John Payne