I’ll say this unequivocally: I just came back from the most enjoyable performance of Steve Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians” that I’ve ever attended. It was part of the “Reich-analia” presented by Portland’s stellar Third Angle new music ensemble. It was breathtaking.
I have to admit that I’m sort of “past my minimalism phase”. There was a time when I’d go to every Philip Glass performance and every Steve Reich concert; I’d seek out other minimalists like John Adams and even the coolest, but less well know, LeMonte Young. I used to make a pretty long trip to Mills College to see Ingram Marshall, too. But, honestly, even though I’d never miss seeing these guys if they came to town, I just don’t dig incessant pulses and arpeggios like I used to.
Tonight was different though. Tonight I was enthralled. This is partly because of the acoustics in the performance space. It was not held in a theater but, rather, in the atrium of the Montgomery Park building in Portland. I expected it to sound odd. After all, the space was designed to be an atrium, not a theater. But, I have to tell you, the clarity blew me away. This is certainly partly attributable to the transient response of the room and the location of the ensemble. But it’s also largely attributable to the crystal clear articulation of each one of the eighteen. Simply put, it was a crisp performance in a surprisingly perfect space.
“Music for 18 Musicians” is a special piece to me. It is arguably the clearest example of Reich’s aesthetic. It’s hundreds of time more complex than early work like “It’s Gonna Rain” or “Come Out”. Yet, it does not stray far from the pulses, mallet instrument cues, instrumentation, and sectionalism that characterizes much of Steve’s music. But that does not explain why it is special to me. It’s “special-ness” comes from the great memories it brings me of my youth spent running around Telegraph Avenue record stores on my frequent visits to Berkeley. You see, I bought my first copy of “18” at Moe’s Records as a used vinyl album. I remember bringing it home to my Cousin Mark’s house and listening to it immediately so as to check for scratches. That way I could make sure I was able to return it if necessary, before heading home to LA. It brings back great images. But, it was also the day that I decided that, for myself, Reich was the greatest minimalist. Sorry Phil, but pulses beat arpeggios and marimbas trump Farfisa Organs any day, in my book.
As it happens, “Music for 18 Musicians” is a special piece to Third Angle as well. They are the first ensemble, aside from “Steve Reich and Musicians“, to be allowed to perform the piece. They worked on it with Steve himself and they have obviously mastered it. So, Bravissimo to 3A!
Two other pieces were part of the program. One was “Electric Counterpoint” for guitar and tape. The second was “Vermont Counterpoint” for 11 flutes. I won’t address the guitar piece because this is the first time I’ve heard it. But I do want to mention the “Vermont Counterpoint” performance. You might not know this, but the flute is about as close to a sine wave as an instrument can get. It’s a very pure timbre with very limited harmonics. It can be either a gorgeous solo instrument or a overtone-free complement to more timbre-rich woodwinds. But, take 11 of them and put them all together and, unless they are really good flutists, you can end up with a big puddle of sine wave mud. Well, that is NOT what happened here. The “Vermont Counterpoint” performance was well-defined and articulate; and, surprisingly, the space contributed to the clarity rather than muddying the instruments. Surprisingly lovely. This demonstrates something I love about Portland. For a city this size we are unquestionably blessed with great musicians. How else could one find 11 flutists, all of whom can play Reich in a buildings atrium, without becoming muddy. Again, Bravissimo.
So, was there a downside to the show tonight. Well… yes. I’m not sure whether there were too many audio cables running parallel to each other, an issue with lighting, or what. But, I have only one little tiny complaint. What the hell was that buzzing in the background?
Aside from that, a fabulous night!