three quartets, one steve reich

This past Friday and Saturday nights, I, as part of the Third Angle String Quartet played all three of Steve Reich’s works for string quartet. Reich, regarded by some as this country’s greatest living composer, turns 80 years old on October 3rd, and ensembles across the world are paying tribute with myriad performances of his works. This is the latest in a series of remarkable concert experiences that I’ve been fortunate to have with Third Angle. Being able to immerse oneself in the music of a single composer for an extended period is always a rewarding experience – insights into the composer’s language come with increasing frequency, and the dividends paid accrue more quickly than playing a work in isolation. That’s why I’ve long suggested that any orchestral musician worth their salt should play chamber music by the major symphonists as part of their musical continuing education.

Violinist Greg Ewer gets ‘into’ his subject.

Triple the Quartet

The quartets we played – Triple Quartet (1998), WTC 9/11 (2010), and Different Trains (1988), each present different challenges to the performer. Triple is the most rhythmically challenging, and in spite of its fast-slow-fast movement tempo structure, really fells like a moto perpetuo all the way through. It demands so much concentration – it feels like a high wire (sans net) act for its entire duration. Playing with not just one, but two other pre-recorded quartet tracks presents a unique challenge to one used to playing a lot of chamber music – the reactive element is very much truncated, because there is a tiny bit of latitude with tempo. The pre-recorded tracks are implacable, immoveable, relentless. But there is so much vitality in this piece! It explodes off the starting block with tremendous energy, then subsiding into a slow, raga-esque burn in the second movement, and then catapulting itself the the end with a marvel of a gradual rhythmic and dynamic crescendo. In many ways, it’s the most conventional of the three quartets, one that Beethoven would probably understand at a basic level of construction.

Cellist Marilyn De Oliveira and violist Charles Noble working the soundcheck on Friday afternoon.

Distilling the Horror

WTC 9/11 is such a difficult work. The subject matter, and the use of the archival recordings and interviews, and just the opening sound of the off-the-hook phone warning tones, places one firmly back in those horrible events of September 11, 2001. It was a work that was difficult to work on at home, playing with the soundtrack, on bright, early September days. So many images came to mind, unbidden, and lingered on. The phrases: “help me, I can’t breathe!”, “people – jumping from the building”, “Hashem yishmor tzaytcha uvoecha may atah va-ahd olahm” (Psalm 121:8 – The Eternal will guard your departure and your arrival from now till the end of time.) So appropriate that we performed this piece on the eve of Rosh Hashana. The first night, you could practically feel the air go out of the room as the piece began. The level of intensity from the audience was something that I’ve only experienced a few times in my performing career, and it was astonishing. The fact that we were in a large space (the Oregon Rail Heritage Center), with enormous locomotives surrounding us on all sides, and with the industrial smell of all the bits and lubricants that keep those huge beasts in running order, also provided a sensory echo of that day fifteen years ago – imagined cavernous spaces where wreckage and materials were stored and examined for years afterward. With a piece such as WTC 9/11,  it’s hard to separate the musical work from the circumstances of its creation, and that seems entirely appropriate here. A work about one of the most terrible days in our modern history, written by a composer who lived four blocks from Ground Zero, and which melds the worst of humanity with a deeply-held religious faith in what is to come – is sheer genius, magical, even as it is evocative of horror beyond imagining. And the long minute of held-breath at the end before the audience allowed itself to reluctantly applaud, equally magical.

Steve Reich | Photo: Jeffrey Herman
Steve Reich | Photo: Jeffrey Herman

Trains (and trains)

The final work on the program, Different Trains, is one of Reich’s most famous pieces, and deservedly so. It is an unqualified masterpiece. Performing it in the midst of giant locomotives of exactly the type that may have propelled Reich on his childhood journeys across the US (from New York to Los Angeles and back again) was an unforgettable experience for us. For me, the echoes (foreshadowing?) of snippets from WTC 9/11 resonated as the rehearsal and performing periods went on: the shriek of the train whistles vs. the sounds of emergency sirens; the phrase “New York” used chillingly in both pieces; the plaintive cadences of the vocal samples “they shaved us”, “the bodies”. There were points in this piece that were so exhilarating, that I found it impossible not to grin. And there were places where it was so heartbreaking to play (and Reich gives some of the best vocal work to the viola in this quartet). People give ‘minimalism’ a bad rap, and I find it hard to understand why. Certainly, it is not all created equal, but Reich’s music has enormous emotional resonance and vitality that is undeniable, and which accounts for its great popularity. There really is nothing ‘minimal’ about it.

Supporting players in name only

I must give credit to the crew of “Team Third Angle”: the indefatigable Lisa Volle, executive director; Ron Blessinger, artistic director and violinist; Evan Lewis, communications coordinator – they made a technical and logistical nightmare seem trivial to navigate. And incredible kudos to Branic Howard, our incredible sound engineer for the concerts. Literally, the evening wouldn’t have been possible without his artistry and technical knowledge!

2 Replies to “three quartets, one steve reich”

  1. I was at the Friday show. Really enjoyed it – great music, great performance. And I’m glad you blogged it – I was looking forward to reading your perspective on Different Trains, esp – as that features the viola so prominently.

    It was a well constructed program, too – the triple quartet, played among the locomotives, seemed at times to evoke engines chugging and train whistles, pre-figuring the final work on the program.. And as you noted – lots of resonance between WTC 9/11 and Different Trains. So it all really pulled together as a whole nicely.

    It’s also interesting to hear your take on playing against recorded music. When I heard Different Trains performed for the first time, Reich explained that it had to be performed against a recording in order to manage the tempo changes, which have to be right to match the voices, which hadn’t really occurred to me. There are a lot of switch-ups of tempo in the music, how hard is that to navigate when you are playing?

  2. Hi Tim – first of all, thanks for coming! We had terrific audiences both nights, and that is what it is all about, after all! The two later quartets after Trains have click tracks that keep the live quartet and the recorded musical cues together. Trains was written in 1988 or so, and though the technology to produce a click track existed, it was likely way too difficult to produce due to the tempo fluctuations. We had one that Ron and his brother produced (over many hours), which made the tempo changes much easier to manage with the rehearsal time we had for the piece. Ideally, we’d really get the piece in our blood with a lot of trail and error repetition, and then do it without a click – which is how Third Angle has done it in the past. We were getting to the point of wanting to get rid of the click for the other pieces by the time the concerts came around, but it would’ve been a big change to assimilate in a short time.

    To answer your question about what it is like to play with a click – it’s a very specific skill that has to be learned over time. We’re all used to playing with metronomes when we practice, and also use them in rehearsals when we’ve got a sticky ensemble situation that we can’t tame any other way. But with mixed meters it’s nearly impossible to use one. Anyway, it is frustrating when playing chamber music, as the ebb and flow of responding to others in the moment is difficult when you’re in the straight jacket of the click. Over time, it can be done, but you essentially have to ignore the click when it is safe to do so, but keep an ear out to make sure you’re on the right beat to meet up with the backing tracks (voices, quartets) at specific points in the music. A perfect example is in the last movement of WTC 9/11, where the voices sing the Hebrew psalm passages, and they float over the beat, never really matching it. The live quartet has their vocal rhythms and pitches approximated, but in performance, we had to float with the voices, often being ‘off’ of the click by as much as a half bar, and then meeting up with the track at the end of the section. Like trying to pat your head and rub your stomach at the same time, but much more difficult!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.