REICH Triple Quartet; Electric Guitar Phase, etc
Triple Quartet is Reich’s first new work for the Kronos Quartet since writing his masterpiece Different Trains in 1988. Different Trains seemed very special at its première not only because of the emotional intensity of its subject matter‚ but also for the daring way in which it synthesised different aspects of Reich’s work up to that point. No doubt Triple Quartet will find its place in the pantheon of Reich’s works‚ but I still feel a little disappointed.
In compositional terms Triple Quartet is immensely accomplished. Yet the most radical aspect of this new piece is to be found in its liner notes. There is something both puzzling and vaguely auspicious about Reich’s admission that his music was influenced by hearing Schnittke’s music for the first time‚ which‚ he writes‚ ‘goaded me to thicken my own plot harmonically and melodically’. In fact Triple Quartet sounds nothing like Schnittke’s music and it is hard to imagine a composer further removed in spirit from Steve Reich than Alfred Schnittke. So what is it that Reich has heard in Schnittke’s music‚ and why is this thought a radical one?
A composer’s strengths can often be a response to‚ or the flipside of‚ a hidden weakness. Steve Reich has constantly made a virtue out of inventing a distinctive sound structure and then sticking to it faithfully throughout the course of a whole piece. Every chord in his music is derived from the same material and a compositional process‚ once set in motion‚ is rarely elided. Though now I love much of Steve Reich’s music‚ its initial impact has always been coloured by an awareness of his rather foursquare harmonic pacing and structural unfolding. In works like Sextet and The Desert Music‚ harmonies that sound glorious for one bar – or typically a 32 bar phrase – gradually lose their power throughout the course of a piece.
On the other hand‚ few composers are as profligate in their invention‚ as impatient with their musical materials or as challenging of stylistic conventions as Schnittke who characteristically used almost any material to hand to undercut the listener’s expectations‚ which was his way of being true to himself. If Schnittke’s music has a longterm effect on Reich‚ it is because both composers have made equally short shrift of the 1960s’ modernist conventions‚ even though they reacted in a diametrically opposed fashion. Schnittke may never influence Reich in an audible way‚ but‚ by suggesting shortcomings in Reich’s own music‚ he may well have become the catalyst for change.
Triple Quartet may yet come to seem forwardlooking in this respect. There is a hint of something new about the unabashed romanticism of the klezmerinfluenced melodic writing‚ which suggests Reich applying broader brush strokes‚ almost ‘letting go’. The harmonies may be the same but Reich has telescoped the pacing of the second and third movements so as to form a more pacy and satisfying whole. In this recording only the second half of the first movement seems low voltage. There are tuning problems in the first violin lines – I suspect this is an area where the overdubbing of three string quartets is not wholly at one with the nature of the piece. I feel that this is a string orchestra piece in all but name‚ and it will be in this form that Triple Quartet will make its greatest impact.
Electric Guitar Phase shows precisely what is missing in Triple Quartet. The young American guitarist Dominic Frasca has arranged Violin Phase‚ originally composed for four violins in the heady days of 1967‚ for four overdubbed guitars‚ an idea perhaps prompted by the Pat Methenycommissioned Electric Counterpoint. Whereas the process of overdubbing Triple Quartet may have inhibited its first movement from catching fire‚ here the result is sheer joy. Such is Frasca’s sensitivity to every nuance of phrasing between the four lines that this recording is a classic for the minimalist genre‚ easily eclipsing the violin original in terms of intensity and tonal variety.
Up to now performances of Reich’s music have been dominated by the composer’s participative presence‚ even in larger concert works such as The Desert Music. His predilection for earthy‚ wellgrounded tempos set the norm for performances of his music throughout the 1970s and ’80s. Two recordings here are fascinating because they were made without Reich’s active participation. Both Music For Large Ensemble (1977) and a new version of Vermont Counterpoint for MIDI percussion shows what Reich’s music sounds like at considerably faster tempi. In this recording of Music For Large Ensemble by Alarm Will Sound and Ossia‚ made at the Eastman School of Music‚ the melodic invention at this jazzy‚ vibrant tempo sounds almost as if Reich had been listening to Ghanaian and Scottish folk music.
Yet this is nothing compared to Tokyo/Vermont Counterpoint where Mika Yoshida’s articulation is so fast that at times you feel helium had escaped in the studio. This is compulsory listening for anyone like me who appreciates a little perversity now and again.