Friday, February 08, 2008

Less than 13 ways of looking at Steve Reich

OK, that headline's a little obscure, so I'd better explain. The contemporary music ensemble eighth blackbird (no caps) will be premiering a new composition by Steve Reich in Richmond, Virginia (about an hour from where I live) in April. The group, like the title for this post, references Wallace Stevens' "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird."

I had an opportunity to see Steve Reich and hear his music Wednesday at James Madison University. There were many facets to the experience, each one worthy of its own mini-post, hence the title.

First view - reputation
When I first heard about the series at JMU, I was really excited. Steve Reich, along with John Adams and Philip Glass from the pantheon of minimalism, a compositional school that re-connected classical music with the vernacular of popular music.

Reich's music sells very well, he can make a living as a composer (without having to supplement it by teaching), he has a record contract with a major label (Nonesuch), and he's a major influence not only in the classical world but also in other genres as well. Steve Reich's compositions are what classical music should be -- relevant, exciting, and accessible (at some level) to a wide audience.

Second view - radio
While some of our local public radio stations mentioned Reich's appearance in Harrisonburg WTJU excepted, of course), there was no way in hell they were actually going to play any of his music. I've railed about how safe programming is killing the classical radio audience, and this is a good example. One of the most important -- and popular -- composers of our time is in town and not a note of his music can be heard anywhere on the radio. Shame on Steve Reich for not dying in the 19th century like Brahms -- that's how you get airplay.

Third view - friends
Not one of our personal friends had heard of Steve Reich, nor even grasped the importance of the event. This isn't so surprising -- music isn't everyone's thing (especially classical music).

Sadly, this also included a school music teacher who professes to like all kinds of music. Yet when it comes to classical, she likes 'em dead and buried. So what concepts will she pass on to her students about this genre?

Fourth view - the pre-concert lecture
Wilson Auditorium had a good-sized crowd for the concert. Reich, in a personable and informal manner, outlined the background for the works we were about to hear and shared details of his creative process. It was a great presentation. I gained new insights into his work, and how to enjoy it at an even deeper level. and he accomplished this without resorting to musical jargon. His comments were easy to understand for just about everyone.

Fifth view - the concert
There's nothing like hearing music live. I seldom get the chance, especially for classical music. It's extremely unlikely that any orchestra will program Hovhanesses' "Mysterious Mountain," or an opera company mount a production of Vaughan Williams' "Pilgrim's Progress." So by necessity, most of my musical exploration is done through recordings.

The concert featured two works: "Vermont Counterpoint," and "Music for 18 Musicians." The first work was for solo flute playing with a tape of several different flutes in overdubbed counterpoint. Watching the performance, I could see which parts were played by the performer (all the lines blend together in the recording). It gave the piece a different dynamic, and I found I actually enjoyed it better than the CD version.

The second work, "Music for 18 Musicians" is a marathon composition. It lasts about an hour and tests the abilities and stamina of the performers who play almost continually. Thanks to Reich's comments beforehand, I could follow the structure in a way I couldn't before. The work made more sense, and I was really drawn into it. I could hear the architecture behind the sound, and the hour (I think it was closer to 51 minutes) seemed to fly by in a timeless instant.

Sixth view - reflection
Early in his career, Reich formed an ensemble to perform his music. He had to -- his scores were considered almost impossible to play, and only by training and performing with the musicians himself could Reich get his music heard. But times have changed. At the concert Wednesday night, I saw undergraduate music students performing that same "impossible" music -- and performing it well.

Something else -- Reich is in his early seventies. Yet public radio, with their aging boomer audience, won't play him. My music teacher friend whose in the upper end of that age group isn't interested in him at all. Reich's audience isn't his generation.

Most of the packed house were made up of twenty- and thirty-somethings, with hardly a blue-hair in sight. When was the last time you saw anyone under sixty at a classical music concert? Reich's audience is the next generation of classical music listeners -- and the public radio stations and concert organizations who wring their hands over their shrinking and graying audiences aren't paying attention.

Seventh view - clay feet
After the concert, there was a rush towards the stage. Folks wanted to talk to Reich, shake his hand, get an autograph, have a picture taken with him, and so on. Reich refused to have any of that. He was ready to leave, and pretty much acted like a d*ck as he rebuffed well-wishers. It was the one downside to the whole experience. I hope he just had a bad night.

Eighth view - bargain
So I got to see one of the greatest living composers in the world and hear his music. The admission price? Six dollars (it would have been half that if I was still a student). Well worth it, and then some. Even if I didn't get my CD autographed.

- Ralph

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