Attending a concert of music by Steve Reich seems to raise the same, eternal questions:
What is the nature of art? How does one listen productively, not passively? At what point does polytonality become chaos? How much repetition can a body take?
Now that Reich is 50--an eminence the American composer achieved Oct. 3--one might expect that some of the answers to some of these questions would start to emerge.
At the poorly attended (1,227 persons) appearance by Steve Reich and Musicians Monday night in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion of the Music Center--under the auspices of the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group--the mysteries in Reich's aesthetic remained, and in the local premiere performance of his newest piece seemed to grow in complexity.
Perhaps one should stop trying to think about this composer's music, and merely take it on its own aural terms.
On the sound level at least, this performance of two works from the 1970s, one rescored piece and two recent compositions, gave considerable pleasure, especially as expertly executed by nine (never more than six at a time) members of the Reich ensemble--the composer included--and by a guest performer, clarinetist Richard Stoltzman.
The latest piece, Sextet (1985), takes off, however slowly, in what may be a new direction for Reich. Scored for two keyboardists (playing alternately on piano and synthesizer) and four percussionists, the nearly half-hour work moves purposefully through five interrelated but contrasting movements.
In the quiet inner movements, Reich's signature-sound, a steady, regularly pulsing ostinato-- yes, those three terms are redundant, but then, so is the sound--is missing. On a background of silence, one finds a neo-Bartokian dialogue between instruments. Phrases and textures seem more extended, less fragmented; they take on a linearity not always associated with this composer. Also, their use of transitions is more abrupt--gradual changes giving way to quasi-cadences.
The result seems both surprising and inevitable and signals a new richness in Reich's harmonic language. Still, the pleasant, almost Mediterranean jangle of the opening movement, the starkness in the work's inside portions and the cumulative crescendo of the finale are recognizably Reichian, though here freshly articulated.
Fresh in quite another sense is "New York Counterpoint" (1985), the composer's virtuoso display-piece for Stoltzman, who superimposes live playing on 10 of his own prerecorded taped performances.
This is jazzy, mock-innocent, sweet and vigorous music, as potent as honey and bracing as vinegar. Without irony, it uses syncopation; without cynicism, it creates consonance. Stolzman, though his aw-shucks stage manner can be irritating, performed the nine-minute piece like the master he is.
Revivals completed the program. "Six Marimbas" (1986) may strike the ear like a low-key Caribbean sound-orgy; it is actually a "re-scoring" (Reich's word) of "Six Pianos." As executed affectionately by five members of the ensemble, "Music for Pieces of Wood" (1973) proves again that imagination, not gadgetry, is the most important component of making music. "Clapping" (1972) began the proceedings, performed handily by the composer and Russell Hartenberger.