Saturday, October 29, 2011

You Can See That Hot Marimba

Now some visually incriminating evidence of my marimba performance at Princeton last weekend.

Enjoy the hilarious corrupted tape edits and the stick toss in the last movement.

Thanks to Mike & Katie Laskey for their videotaping and their whoops.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Can't You Hear That Hot Marimba

The Princeton University Orchestra really let itself go for its first concert this year.

They programmed a marimba concerto for the first time in its history.

They had performed a concerto for cello and pizza delivery guy, a concerto for Norwegian Hardanger Fiddle, a concerto for electric guitar, and, for chrissakes, three viola concertos. But never the lowly, schlocky, beautiful marimba.

I had the pleasure of changing that this past weekend when I performed Ney Rosauro's Concerto for Marimba and String Orchestra on Friday and Saturday. For those of you who sadly missed out, you can find compressed, incriminating evidence here.
Before going on, I make the obligatory sign of the
 Society of Free Marimbists. Photo by Kaki Elgin.
It's been a long road for the marimba from novel exotica to concert hall respectability. In fact, the concept of a marimba concerto was nearly killed before anyone heard a note of one.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Reich at 75: 18 Takes Off

Perhaps Music for Eighteen Musicians would have stayed in its oral form if not for the piece’s instant popularity.  Its premiere at Town Hall in New York on April 24, 1976 created a critical stir.  New York Times critic John Rockwell called it a “remarkable piece of work” and hoped that the premiere recording would the win the piece a larger audience.[1]  Even the so-called “Dean of American Rock Critics,” Robert Christgau, gave the piece a very favorable review, speaking to its genre-transcending potency.[2] While Eighteen was recorded formally in the studio soon after the premiere, Reich’s label at the time, Deutsch Gramophone, sat on the recording and eventually declined to release it.[3] However, Reich eventually got a letter from the German jazz label ECM (who at the time was producing best-selling albums by the likes of Keith Jarrett and Pat Metheny) saying that they wanted to pick up the recording.[4] Upon release of the album in 1978, Eighteen received airplay on college and public radio stations alongside avant-rock artists like David Bowie and Brian Eno.[5] Within 2 years of release, ECM sold over 100,000 copies of the record.  Reich’s music was busting out of downtown New York art galleries and capturing the attention of listeners and fellow musicians throughout the world.
In the wake of the popular success of Music for Eighteen Musicians, Reich came across the predicament of other musicians wanting to play his pieces.  Because of the particular manner in which Eighteen was written down and learned, the existing parts would make very little sense to any musician who had not learned the piece in Reich’s group.  If other musicians wished to perform Eighteen, they had to learn it from scratch by listening to the recording numerous times and then using the familiarity of the piece to decipher the shorthand directions on the written parts.  Because the task of learning and rehearsing the piece would take months and was rather unfeasible economically for most professional musicians, only two outside groups took the piece on within the two decades after the original album’s release.[6] One of the performances, organized by the Amadinda percussion group in Hungary, was recorded live on May 18, 1990 and later released on CD in 2004.[7] Because the group virtually learned the piece by rote over the course of several months, they play it as convincingly as Reich’s band.  The performance is louder and more insistent than the original recording.  The tempo is a couple of metronome ticks faster and stays ruthlessly consistent throughout the piece, compared to the slight tempo fluctuations that the Reich ensemble settled into.  It is clear that the performers in the 1990 recording have physically internalized the piece much in the same way Reich’s musicians did.  The subtle differences in performance are due to idiosyncrasies in personal time feel rather than overall familiarity with the piece.

Because of the difficulties associated with performing Eighteen as such, a new decipherable score and parts set was necessary in order for the piece to have a life of its own outside the original recording and periodic performances.  Luckily, this development would eventually become a reality due to the enduring success of both Eighteen and Reich’s subsequent works.  Though Music for Eighteen Musicians was Reich’s most popular piece to date, it did not turn him into a one-hit wonder.  Later pieces like Music for Large Ensemble and Tehillim were also critical successes and helped cement Reich as one of the most well regarded American composers – he was soon receiving many commissions from major performers throughout the United States.[8]  At that time, Reich’s music was growing more conventional in that it could be (and in some cases had to be) expressed in traditional western notation.  Tehillim, for instance, features a regular pulse, but near constant time signature shifts.  Because of this rhythmic complexity, it could not be taught by rote in the same way as Eighteen and so was written down in a more complete fashion.[9] In the middle of these developments in the mid-1980s, the British publishing house Boosey and Hawkes began to publish Reich’s music.  With its worldwide distribution, Boosey was able to bring Reich’s music to new places and allow different ensembles to learn and perform it.  However, even with the backing of one of the world’s largest music publishing firms, it would take the enthusiasm of American PhD student to create a usable score for Music for Eighteen Musicians.

***Next, hear about how Marc Mellits put '18' on paper and how the score changes performances***

[1] John Rockwell, “The Pop Life,” The New York Times, 17 November 1978, page C12.
[2] Robert Christgau, “American Consumer Guide Reviews: Steve Reich,” get_artist.php?name=steve+reich
[3] Zuckerman Interview with Reich.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Zuckerman interview with Reich.
[7] Amadinda & Musicians, Steve Reich: Music for Eighteen Musicians, html/Afelv_10.html
[8] The San Francisco Symphony soon commissioned Variations for Winds, Strings and Keyboards, and Reich later composed popular pieces for the Kronos Quartet (Different Trains) and guitarist Pat Metheny (Electric Counterpoint).
[9] Steve Reich, Tehillim, London: Boosey & Hawkes, 1981.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Reich at 75: People-Programming the Score

After completing Music for Mallet Instruments, Reich began work on what would become Music for Eighteen Musicians, a piece which would consume his compositional energies for the better part of the next three years.  In an interview with the British composer Michael Nyman around the time of Eighteen’s premiere in 1976, Reich speaks about how the piece reflects changes in his musical personality.  While Reich’s pieces from around the time of “Music as a Gradual Process” were built on impersonal processes (in contrast to the emphasis on personal expression and free improvisation in the downtown New York music of the time), Eighteen is more concerned with expressive effect.[1]  Reich is no longer opposed to using his musical biases to shape the direction of a piece and is less concerned with whether the audience hears the strict processes in it.[2] Music for Eighteen Musicians opens and closes with a series of eleven chords, played in fast quaver pulses by the full ensemble, while the middle sections expand each of the chords into different mini-pieces featuring some of the same rhythmic techniques from Drumming and Music for Mallet Instruments.  However, while these processes are simple and certainly audible to a relatively informed listener, they do not draw attention to themselves.  The listener is much more drawn in by the hyper-rich instrumental textures and the infectious, nearly tropical, groove.

In order for Eighteen to totally envelop the listener, it must be played with a machine-like consistency.  For example, two marimbas play an alternating quaver pulse underneath nearly the entire piece.  If one of the players flubs just one beat, the trance-like groove is broken and the piece instantly looses momentum.  Despite the performance difficulties, Reich could ensure the piece’s performance quality because he had over the past several years assembled a dedicated group of musicians to play his music with him.  While composing Drumming in 1970, soon after a trip to study drumming in Ghana, Reich was introduced to a percussionist named Russell Hartenberger who was also interested in travelling to Africa.[3]  Through his conversations with Reich, Hartenberger was invited to rehearse the incubating Drumming and became the first full-time percussionist in Reich’s ensemble.[4]  To meet the eventual playing demands of Drumming (it requires 9 percussionists), Reich brought in other percussionists, many through James Preiss, a teacher at the Manhattan School of Music.[5] As Reich’s reputation grew within the underground New York contemporary music scene, he was able to draft even more players into Steve Reich & Musicians, eventually reaching the core of 17 (plus himself) in the mid 1970s.[6]  Reich notes in a 2002 interview that most the musicians he was working with at the time of Eighteen were still finishing up graduate school, so it was not difficult to bring everyone in for a rehearsal every 2-3 weeks.[7]

Reich’s working band not only allowed the composer to more tightly control the performance quality of his pieces, it also had a profound effect on Reich’s compositional process as well.  In Drumming, for instance, the human phasing techniques had never been employed in any piece of music before and so it required that Reich learn how to do it himself (phasing against a tape loop) and then teach the technique to his players.[8] Notation alone would not have been able to adequately express the sound of the piece.  This rote method of learning Drumming carried over to Eighteen as well.  Throughout 1974-1976, Reich would work on a particular segment of the piece in his manuscript notebook (see the “pulses” example below), and then would transcribe it out in a shorthand notation on small slips of paper for each player.[9] Most of the details of the piece were worked out during the rehearsals themselves.[10] Russell Hartenberger notes that each part was like a cliffnotes version of the piece, with very personalized directions (i.e. “wait for Jay to sing that pattern, cue Steve.”).[11] At each rehearsal, Reich would bring in corrections and take suggestions from the players.[12] In this way, the composition of the piece and the learning of the piece were one process, much more akin to the members of a rock band composing and learning a song together.  In both instances, the piece or song is composed into the muscle memory of the players, making a written score unnecessary.

[1] Michael Nyman, “Steve Reich: Interview by Michael Nyman,” Studio International, 1976, no. 192 (November / December): pp. 300-307.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Interview with Russell Hartenberger by Daniel Tones.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Gabrielle Zuckerman, Interview with Steve Reich, July 2002, features/interview_reich.html.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Hartenberger Interview.
[9] Steve Reich, Music for Eighteen Musicians, performance note, London: Boosey & Hawkes, 2000.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Hartenberger Interview.
[12] Ibid.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Party with Steve

Steve Reich is 75 today! (Why is there no Google doodle?) It seems his birthday has been celebrated for a whole year at this point, but why not celebrate for so long if it's an excuse to listen to his music?

My Reich nerdiness has been well-established on this blog. So it should come as no surprise that there will be much celebration here this week too. Last year, I wrote a paper on Music for 18 Musicians at the Royal College of Music. I talked about the evolution of the piece from its original conception to eventual score to later recordings and how using the score affects performance.

I'll be posting bits of the essay here each day, so come back to here the story behind this monumental piece of music.