From the Renaissance to Reich: Â Riches for All
By Victoria Looseleaf
Impressionist artist Paul Gauguin once told a friend, “Above all, don't sweat over a painting.” This is clearly not the modus operandi of minimalist titan Steve Reich, whose works, conceived in a painstakingly slow manner, have nevertheless been many. Embedding themselves into the musical landscape for more than four decades, these pieces include a slew of critically lauded vocal works - from 1981's Psalm-based Tehellim to the composer's 1995 homage to Perotin, Proverb. His repeating patterns and resonating timbres have also left their soundprints on the commercial scene, the Reichian influence heard in the innovations of airport music king Brian Eno and erstwhile glam rocker David Bowie. In addition, scads of disc jockeys have spun his tunes, with pop music aficionados wearing out the grooves on Reich Remixed, a 1999 album with electronica acts reworked to his formidable compositions. Having turned 70 last October, the New York-born maverick reached an apex of hipness, with celebrations taking place in London, where his Daniel Variations was given its first performance, his hometown, including a weekend of Carnegie Hall concerts, and now, in Walt Disney Concert Hall. No stranger to these walls, Reich's aural tableaux have provided concertgoers with many breathtaking musical experiences, none more thrilling, perhaps, than You Are (Variations). The first Reich composition to have its world premiere in Los Angeles, the work, a co-commission by the Los Angeles Master Chorale, Lincoln Center, and Friends of Ensemble Modern, was performed on October 24, 2004, with music director Grant Gershon at the helm. Hailed as a “masterpiece” by the Los Angeles Times, the 26-minute opus, teeming with bold, brilliant variations of slow-moving chord sequences, was so successful that the Chorale followed the performance with a recording on Nonesuch. Released in September 2005, the disc, too, received plaudits. Recalling Reich's Jewish roots and his abiding interest in the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, the four-movement You Are (Variations), opens with rhythmic urgency, the chorus singing the words of Rebbe Nachman (“You are wherever your thoughts are”). Hurling the listener into a musical world akin to a spiritual rave, its canons recall early music constructs. The second movement, from Psalm 16, also makes use of a text sung in Hebrew (“I place the Eternal before me”), with brilliant splashes of color - marimbas, vibes and four pianos - surging forward in constantly changing meters. It is this relentlessness of the pianos bursting with orgiastic harmonies that unites the piece in a buoyant D major chord. The meditative third section offers fragments of Wittgenstein (“Explanations come to an end somewhere”), in which Reich employs brooding, minor harmonies as a gambit to complement the varying text repetitions. A summation of the work, the final movement (“Say little and do much”), explodes into an E-ticket ride tempo, propelling the piece to an abrupt end: a shattering silence, a vision unveiled. While Reich has sometimes been considered cool and distant, fires simmer beneath those glistening surfaces. Having tackled an array of politically charged topics over the years, including the Holocaust (1988's Different Trains), the composer now gives us his most politically overt work to date, Daniel Variations. Continuing his consolidation of forty years of musical discovery, Reich, in this life-affirming work that receives its West Coast premiere and was commissioned by the Los Angeles-based Daniel Pearl Foundation, an organization formed in memory of the slain journalist to promote cross-cultural tolerance, the piece yields new sonic riches. Bringing to mind the romantic aural bling of You Are (Variations), Reich, in this 30-minute four-movement tribute to Pearl (each movement also based on a short text), unleashes a flood of tightly-wound power: Again writing for four pianos and vibraphones, abetted by bass drum and tam tam, the composer pulls no punches in warning of the inevitable, coming crash. The first and third movements quote from the book of Daniel, representing a juxtaposition of the violence and cruelty found in the Bible with the mercy and compassion of Pearl's own words. The first text is spoken by Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon (modern day Iraq), asking Daniel to interpret his dream of terror (“I saw a dream. Images upon my bed and visions in my head frightened me.”). The immense, slow chords of the opening are ominous harbingers before voices enter and augment the bone-chilling atmosphere in this journey to the heart of darkness. Piano interludes become chopped, with sopranos ascending on the word, “dreaming.” The second text, “My name is Daniel Pearl,” was spoken by the journalist as his captors videotaped him. According to Reich, these five words are emblematic of Pearl --- the remarkable person --- his name indicative of his character. As the journalist was also an avid violinist, this was a musical cue for Reich to soar. Jazzy, hopeful and bright, the words looping and curling around a steroidal string quartet, this movement makes luminous the name “Pearl,” taking us away from the horrific circumstances surrounding his death. “Let the dream fall back on the dreaded,” the third movement, assaults again with the clashing pianos, the permutations of harmonies and word-parsings continuing to cast an unspeakable shadow. Reich, not one for superficialities, then delivers a knockout fourth movement. With words partially taken from Stuff Smith's 1936 jazz fiddle album, “I sure hope Gabriel likes my music, when the day is done” (Pearl had also spoken those words), the syncopated string riffs pile on top of the same colliding piano chords heard in the work's opening. Building to a huge, riveting climax, the piece ends with a shocking, abrupt jolt. Neither requiem nor eulogy, Daniel Variations is living, breathing, exhilarating music that embodies the humanity of its subject, and, as an acoustic force, can shed grace on us all.
Also shedding grace is the music of Franco-Flemish polyphony maven Josquin DesPrez. Often called the father of modern harmony, the composer, who lived from 1440-1521, counted among his patrons France's Louis XII. Considered the greatest music maker of the high Renaissance, he was also willful and expensive to commission - the Usher of his day - but was nevertheless one of the first westerners to concentrate on the motet and make use of “motivic cells.” Short, easily recognizable melodic fragments that passed from voice to voice in a contrapuntal texture, this is a basic organizational principle in music that still stands today. Two pristine examples are Josquin's Absalon fili mi (Samuel 18) and Jubilate Deo omnis terra (Psalm 100). With their flexible combinations of textures encompassing the technique of pervasive imitation based on word-generated motifs, these are nothing less than Reichian. Born nearly a century later, William Byrd (often called the English Palestrina), was the foremost composer of the Elizabethan age and a master of keyboard music, madrigals and church music. It was Elizabeth I, in fact, who granted Byrd and his student, the renowned Thomas Tallis, a monopoly for printing music in England, enabling the distinguished contrapuntists to become both financially and artistically secure. Whether in the more meditative Justorum animae, from the book of Wisdom, or the joyous, elegantly intricate six-part setting of Psalm 117, Haec Dies, written in 1607, these a cappella works, sung in Latin, have the transcendent power, as only the human voice does, to transport and elate.
Victoria Looseleaf is an award-winning arts journalist and regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times, Reuters and Performances Magazine. In addition, she is the Program Annotator for the Geffen Playhouse as well as the producer-host of the long-running cable access television show on the arts, “The Looseleaf Report.” This is her third season with the Los Angeles Master Chorale.