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April 14, 1998

Modern Composers[Music of] Steve Reich. Proverb; Nagoya Marimbas; City Life. Theatre of Voices, The Steve Reich Ensemble. (Nonesuch Records, CD # 79430-2) 1996.

"How small a thought it takes to fill a whole life." That quote from Wittgenstein forms the text of Proverb, one of three new pieces by American composer Steve Reich (b. 1936) on this recent album from Nonesuch. The Wittgenstein line could also be a comment on Reich's career as a composer. One of the small thoughts that has run like a leitmotif through his work is the question of where to draw the line separating music from noise. At least as far back as George Gershwin's An American In Paris, composers have written simulations of street noises into concert pieces, and composers such as Antheil have incorporated non-musical noise-makers into their works. Reich himself was one of the pioneers in the use of electromagnetic tape to incorporate non-traditional sounds into his compositions, and single-handedly developed the technique of "phasing," in which two or more tapes of the same musical lines are played slightly but increasingly out of phase. Reich's works such as The Cave use conventional instruments to mimic the tonality of human speech to musical effect, again using tape recordings of speech. In one of the works on the present album, however, Reich goes a step further and uses a pair of sampling keyboards to recreate not only recorded bits of speech but a range of other street noises, including car horns, car alarms, slamming doors, pile drivers, sirens, subway chimes, a heartbeat, and others. In addition to the two samplers, City Life, written in 1995, is scored for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two pianos, three percussion, and string quartet, and bass. These traditional instruments and the sampled city noises have equal status in the work, each augmenting the other.

City Life is written in five movements, played without pauses, but with dramatic sudden transitions. The first movement uses a Manhattan street vendor's phrase "Check it out!" The "text" for the third movement -- "It's been a honeymoon -- Can't take no more" -- was recorded at a political rally, and the snippets of speech used in the fifth section "are from actual field communications of the New York City Fire Department on February 26, 1993, the day the World Trade Center was bombed." The second and fourth movements use no speech, and have insistent rhythmic undercurrents, one consisting of the sound of a pile driver, the other of a human heart.

In contrast to the complex structure of the other two pieces on this album, Nagoya Marimbas, written in 1994, is a short (4 minutes) work for two marimbas. Reich himself notes that this piece "is somewhat similar to my pieces from the 1960s and 70s in that there are repeating patterns played on both marimbas, one or more beats out of phase, creating a series of two-part unison canons."

Proverb, from 1995, is written for three soprano voices, two tenors, two vibraphones, and two electric organs. Both the instruments and the voices are used in ways that more often typify the other -- i.e., the voices like instruments and vice versa. Throughout, "the sopranos sing syllabically with one note for each work...[and] the tenors sing long melismas on a single syllable." The combination makes for a wonderfully rich mix of textures.

You can hear City Life by Steve Reich on WHIL-FM (91.3) at 7:30 pm, Thursday, April 23 as part of their weekly series of music from after 1950.

-- J. Green


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