Sunday, February 26, 2012

Left Brain / Reich Brain

           “Feeling” certainly seems like a verb that is constantly practiced. In fact, this might be proven to be true. However, with common means of communication, it is truly rare when the essence of how we feel is described. There are words to label how we feel, such as “sad” or “excited” or “pleasant.” But a feeling is always something unique, and these constants of identification are yet another way to bring attention to only what is immediately going on around us. With words, it’s often impossible to describe exactly how we feel.
            Feelings, despite their complexity, can be realized through simple methods, and one of them has proven to be Steve Reich. Still celebrating his 75th birthday year (his birthday was in October of 2011), Chatter 20|21, a branch of New Mexico’s concert collective Chatter, will be a perfect area to find true feeling at their Reich retrospective concert titled “Left Brain / Reich Brain” on March 3rd.

Left Brain Reich Brain
I want this as a tattoo, please
Steve with the signature hat

            Reich’s Pulitzer Prize-winning piece “Double Sextet,” as well as “Clapping Music” and his revolutionary string quartet “Different Trains” will be played at the Chatter 20|21 concert. Chatter, which in and of itself is an organization rich in passion and dedication to its audiences, has been building up to the concert with small performances of Reich pieces, such as “Marimba (Piano) Phase” and “Vermont Counterpoint” (future dates of Reich performances by Chatter are March 11 and May 20).
             Reich’s music is the repertoire almost every musician points to when the topics “minimalist” or “20th and 21st century in general” are brought up. Centering on heavy pulses and simple yet mind-blowing shifts in large groups of instruments, Reich is arguably America’s greatest living composers and one of the greatest of all time. What makes him so great? Well, it’s hard to describe, and there’s where the trouble with language comes in again. Perhaps that’s why Reich chose music.
            Unlike the sweeping, plot-like melodies of Romantic and Classical pieces or the sometimes disconcerting sounds of the Second Viennese School, Reich’s music is incredibly simple in form. However, Reich accomplishes more than many regarded composers before him did. Through his meditative and naturally harmonic sounds, Reich digs deep into the mind listeners and releases the tangled mess of senses, memories, and stories. What emerges when listening to his music is a balanced, clear mind that allows one full access to their subconscious self. What surrealist painters tried to reach through scattered, subjective object collages, Reich achieves through long periods of pulsing and perfectly placed tension and resolution points.
            “Double Sextet,” written in 2007 and commissioned by the ensemble eighth blackbird (capitals purposefully omitted), is a work in three movements for violin, cello, flute, clarinet, and vibraphone.  Each movement in the piece includes four harmonic sections in the keys of D, F, A flat, and B. The first movement, “Fast,” starts with a locomotive beat from the vibraphone and piano and long sweeps from the other instruments. In this movement, the vibraphone and piano establish themselves as mother and father presences in the piece. The pulses in “Slow” are more subtle and less like roads and more like fences. The third movement, a second “Fast,” has a beat that brings one’s heart level up—it’s inspirational and confident. The bass notes of the piano morph it from a valley to a precipice. The piece plays with the natural human response of leaning towards sound; that moment when a close-in-pitch note is added to a chord and instantly the eyebrows of the listener crinkle together.

            “Different Trains” is one of Reich’s landmark pieces (and won him a Grammy). The piece is based on the sounds and meanings of trains during World War II. When Reich wrote the piece, he traveled from New York to Los Angeles frequently to visit his parents during the war. He realized that if he were in Europe at the same time, because he is a Jew, he might have been riding Holocaust trains. The pulsing of the strings is undeniably train-like, and looped tape of interview excerpts from various people in Europe and the US before, during, and after the war (the movements are consequently titled “America-Before the War,” “Europe-During the War” and “After the War”). Each melody in the movements, usually a small fragment from one of the instruments, is derived from the pitch of the voices in the interviews. The combination of man and machine is primitive and revealing. The sounds work together, and yet the allusions to the war create realizations that counter these aural acceptances.

            These pieces, with their simplicity and consistency, strip away the ever-changing plot lines and melodies of pieces of previous centuries, leaving only the natural responses. Because the constant pulsing of notes doesn’t leave much room for storytelling, the listener strays away from creating images or other related thoughts. Through Reich’s methods, “feeling” as a verb can be truly practiced and recognized. My personal example is with “After the War.” For me, the sounds from that movement create the pure feeling of resolution and yet knowing there is a long way to go. Words can’t adequately describe the feeling, and the only image I can think of would be standing on a road that goes further than the eye can see. But with the sound, the feeling itself is created.
            Storytelling is a common template of music because it’s comfortable—we are guided through the way we are supposed to feel when we listen. However, the separation of true feeling and the world that sometimes covers it up is an experience that everyone needs, and listening to Reich is a way to do that (among the thousands of other things his music can do to you). Chatter 20|21, along with including some of my favorite musicians, will surly bring all the passion of Reich that he deserves in his 75th year of life. I can feel it. 

Chatter A Chamber ensemble

Colbert's obviously not happy with his fellow Steven (only watch the beginning)

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