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Steve Reich: Phases: A Nonesuch Retrospective

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Steve Reich
Phases: A Nonesuch Retrospective
Nonesuch Records
2006

When the history book is written on the minimalist scene that emerged in the 1960s, it's likely that composer Steve Reich will emerge as the most influential figure. Certainly artists including Philip Glass and Terry Riley have made extremely significant contributions to contemporary classical music and have evolved, like Reich, beyond the inherent constraints of the genre. But Reich's influence can be felt in music by artists as diverse as German bassist Eberhard Weber, guitar legend Pat Metheny and British progressive rock groups Soft Machine and Gentle Giant. Even Mike Oldfield's classic Tubular Bells had considerable precedent in Reich's work.

Reich turns 70 on October 3, 2006, and it's rightfully being touted as a major event, with celebrations planned in both New York and London. And while Nonesuch Records released a now out-of-print ten-CD set, Steve Reich: 1965-1995 in 1997, to commemorate Reich's 70th they've released a five-CD set called Phases: A Nonesuch Retrospective. It may be less completely comprehensive than its predecessor, but is a terrific place to start, with largely recent recordings of works spanning Reich's entire career, from 1965's "Come Out" to 2005's "You Are (Variations)." What becomes clear, when making one's way through the nearly six hours of music that is not arranged in any kind of chronological order, is how much has changed...and how much has stayed the same.

From Reich's first "happy accident"—where he had two tapes of a Pentacostal preacher shouting "It ain't gonna rain!" running simultaneously but, because the machines were running at slightly different speeds, the phrases began to go out of phase—he's been interested in how melody and rhythm can interact. Reich's music, more than Glass and Riley, is often a powerfully visceral experience, where one can literally feel one's body being pulled as the interlaced segments move from background to foreground, and shift in place as new elements are added.

While early works like "Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ" (1973) established Reich's ability to weave hypnotic, long-form compositions that relied heavily on tuned percussion instruments like vibraphone, marimba and glockenspiel, it wasn't until Music for 18 Musicians was released by ECM in 1978 that Reich made it onto the radar of a larger listening public. While there are those who consider that recording to be definitive, the fact that it was not possible to experience the entire 56-minute piece as a whole because of the limitations of vinyl makes it less-than-perfect because the critical flow is disrupted half-way through.

Since then more than one version has been released on CD, and the Nonesuch version that was originally released in 1998 and appears on the first disc of this box set is certainly as good, if not better, than the original. That a full third of the musicians on the ECM release are still in Reich's ensemble today is a testament to both their ability to navigate Reich's challenging music and their ongoing interest in a composer who continues to produce marvelous new works like "You Are (Variations)." Reich may be turning 70, but his career is far from over.

The box set manages to include almost all of Reich's best-known and influential work. "Drumming" (1971) relies heavily on, no surprise, percussion instruments (tuned and untuned) to evolve its 56-minute, four-movement form. Reich's interest in utilizing lyrical fragments in repeated form to act as the foundation for long-form composition is well-represented on the 1994 version of "Tehillim" (1981) and the more advanced "You Are (Variations)." What's not necessarily evident when listening to these vocal pieces, as well as "Different Trains" (1988), which features the Kronos Quartet and recordings of voices from before, during and after World War II, is the amount of effort required of Reich to find just the right phrases that would not only work from a rhythmical perspective, but in their actual meaning as well. "You Are (Variations)" works best, with the music integrating perfectly with the phrases that make up the four movements (two in English and two in Hebrew): "You are whatever your thoughts are"; "I place the Eternal before me"; "Explanations come to an end somewhere"; and, perhaps the most revealing movement, "Say little and do much."

The inclusion of a number of Reich's "Counterpoint" pieces demonstrates how a single instrument can be layered, creating rhythmic pulses that are often surprising and uncharacteristic. "New York Counterpoint" (1985) features Bang on a Can clarinetist Evan Ziporyn and "Cello Counterpoint" (2003) cellist Maya Beiser. One of the best-known of Reich's works is simply the result of the star-power associated with it—the 1989 recording of "Electric Counterpoint" (1987), featuring the iconic Pat Metheny (who will be performing the piece in New York during the 70th Birthday Celebration). What is remarkable for anyone who is familiar with Metheny's work—and he has adapted some of Reich's concepts to his own writing, specifically with The Way Up (Nonesuch, 2005)—is how, despite playing strictly composed parts, it still manages to sound like Metheny. That very fact suggests that, while there's no room for true improvisation in Reich's work, the personalities of the musicians involved do make themselves known—another reason why, no doubt, Reich continues to work with some of the same musicians again and again over the years.

When compiling any retrospective there will always be pieces left off that individual fans think should have been included. Certainly guitarist Dominic Frasca—whose own album, Deviations (Cantaloupe, 2005) dispenses with all kinds of apparently artificial limitations on the instrument—and his 2001 version of "Electric Guitar Phase" (1967) is an important update to the original, and Alarm Will Sound/Ossia's 2000 revision of "Music for Large Ensemble" (1977), originally released by ECM in 1980, is a compelling take. But for this surprisingly affordable set, where each disc is chock-a-block with music, clearly some tough decisions had to be made in order to contain the collection within five discs.

There's no new material to be found, and so longtime Reich fans may find themselves in possession of everything contained and more. But for those who are either new to the wonderful world of Reich or haven't obtained the lion's share of his major works, Phases: A Nonesuch Retrospective is a welcome release that makes it possible to get a comprehensive career overview in one small package.

Disc One

Personnel: Rebecca Armstrong: soprano; Marion Beckenstein: soprano; Cheryl Bensman Rowe: soprano; Jay Clayton: alto, piano; Russell Hartenberger: marimba, xylophone; Tim Ferchen: marimba, xylophone; James Preiss: vibraphone, piano; Garry Kvistad: marimba, xylophone, piano; Steve Reich: marimba, piano; Thad Wheeler: marimba, maracas; Nurit Tilles: piano; Edmund Neimann: piano; Philip Bush: piano, maracas; Elizabeth Lim: violin; Jeanne LeBlanc: cello; Leslie Scott: clarinet, bass clarinet; Evan Ziporyn: clarinet, bass clarinet.

Tracks: Music for 18 Musicians (1976): Pulses; Section I; Section II; Section III; Section IV; Section V; Section VI; Section VII; Section VIII; Section IX; Section X; Section XI; Pulses.

Disc Two

Personnel: On Different Trains Kronos Quartet: David Harrington: violin; John Sherba: violin; Hank Dutt: viola; Joan Jeanrenaud: cello. On "Tehillim": Schõnberg Ensemble with Percussion Group The Hague, Reinbert de Leeuw, conductor; Barbara Borden: soprano; Tannie Willemstijn: soprano; Yvonne Benschop: mezzo-soprano; Ananda Goud: mezzo-soprano. On Eight Lines: Bang on a Can: Bradley Lubman: conductor; Todd Reynolds: violin; Gregor Kitzis: violin; Jaqueline Carrasco: violin; Elizabeth Knowles: violin; Martha Mook: viola; Ron Lawrence: viola; Mark Stewart: cello; Greg Passelink: cello; Patti Monson: flute, piccolo; David Fedele: flute, piccolo; Michael Lowrenstern: clarinet, bass clarinet; Evan Ziporyn: clarinet, bass clarinet; Edmund Niemann: piano; Nurit Tilles: piano.

Tracks: Different Trains (1988): America-Before the War; Europe-During the War; After the War. Tehillim (1981): Part I: Fast; Part II: Fast; Part III: Slow; Part IV: Fast. Eight Lines (1979).

Disc Three

Personnel: On You Are (Variations): Los Angeles Master Chorale: Phoebe Alexander: soprano; Tania Batson: soprano; Claire Fedoruk: soprano; Rachelle Fox: soprano; Marie Hodgson: soprano; Emily Lin: soprano; Sarona Farrell: alto; Amy Fogerson: alto; Alice Murray: alto; Nancy Sulahian: alto; Kim Switzer: alto; Tracy Van Fleet: alto; Pablo Cora: tenor; Shawn Kirchner: tenor; Joseph Golightly: tenor; Sean McDermott: tenor; Fletcher Sheridan: tenor; Kevin St. Clair: tenor; Geri Ratella: flute; Sara Weisz: flute; Joan Elardo: oboe; Joel Timm: oboe; James Faschia: clarinet; Helen Goode-Castro: clarinet; Larry Hughes: clarinet; Gloria Cheng: piano; Lisa Edwards: piano; Brian Pezzone: piano; Vicki Ray: piano; Wade Cullbreath: marimba and vibes; Mike Englander: marimba and vibes; John Magnussen: marimba and vibes; Tom Raney: marimba and vibes; Tamara Hatwan: violin 1; Ralph Morrison: violin 1; Susan Reddish: violin 1; Samuel Fischer: violin 2; Julie Rogers: violin 2; Steve Schart: violin 2; Darren McCann: viola; Victoria Miskolcsky: viola; Catherine Reddish: viola; Delores Bing: cello; Maurice Grants: cello; Roger LeBow: cello; Oscar Hidalgo: bass; Grant Gershon: conductor. On New York Counterpoint: Evan Ziporyn: clarinets. On Cello Counterpoint: Maya Beiser: cello. On Electric Counterpoint: Pat Metheny: guitar. On Triple Quartet: Kronos Quartet: David Harrington: violin; John Sherba: violin; Hank Dutt: viola; Jennifer Culp: cello.

Tracks: You Are (Variations) (2004): You Are Wherever Your Thoughts Are; Siviti Hashem L'Negdi (I Place the Eternal Before Me); Explanations come to an End Somewhere; Ehmore M'Aht V'Ahsay Harbay (Say Little and Do Much). New York Counterpoint (1985): Fast; Slow; Fast. Cello Counterpoint (2003). Electric Counterpoint (1987): Fast; Slow; Fast. Triple Quartet (1999): First Movement; Second Movement; Third Movement.

Disc Four

Personnel: On Come Out and Proverb: Theatre of Voices: Andrea Fullington: soprano; Sonja Rasmussen: soprano; Allison Zetlles: soprano; Alan Bennett: tenor; Paul Elliott: tenor; with members of the Steve Reich Ensemble: Riussell Hartenberger: vibraphone; Bob Becker: vibraphone; Nurit Tilles: electric organ; Edmund Niemann: electric organ; Paul Hillier: conductor. On The Desert Music: Steve Reich and Musicians with Members of the Brooklyn Philhamonic and Chorus, Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor; Russell Hartenberger: principal percussion; Bob Becker: principal percussion; Glen Velez: principal percussion; Garry Kvistad: principal percussion; Principal Strings: Julie Rosenfeld: concertmistress; Deborah Redding: second violin; Francesca Martin: viola; Sharon Prater: cello; Donald Palma: bass; Choral Contractor: Cheryl Bensman: soprano.

Tracks: Come Out (1966); Proverb (1995); The Desert Music (1984): First Movement (Fast); Second Movement (Moderate); Third Movement, Part One (Slow); Third Movement, Part Two (Moderate); Third Movement, Part Three (Slow); Fourth Movement (Moderate); Fifth Movement (Fast).

Disc Five

Personnel: On Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ: Steve Reich and Musicians: Bob Becker: marimba; Tim Ferchen: marimba; Russell Hartenberger: marimba; Steve Reich: marimba; Garry Kvistad: glockenspiel; Thad Wheeler: glockenspiel; James Preiss: vibraphone; Nurit Tilles: electric organ; Pamela Wood Ambush: voice (long tones); Rebecca Armstrong: voice (long tones); Jay Clayton: voice (melodic patterns). On Drumming: Steve Reich and Musicians: Bob Becker: tuned drums, marimbas, glockenspiels; Russell Hartenberger: tuned drums, marimbas, glockenspiels; Garry Kvistad: tuned drums, marimbas, glockenspiels; James Preiss: tuned drums, marimbas, glockenspiels; Stever Reich: tuned drums, marimbas, glockenspiels, whistling; Gary Schall: tuned drums, marimbas, glockenspiels; Glen Velez: tuned drums, marimbas, glockenspiels; Thad Wheeler: tuned drums, marimbas, glockenspiels; Pamela Wood Ambush: voice; Jay Clayton: voice; Mort Silver: piccolo.

Tracks: Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ (1973). Drumming (1971): Part I; Part II; Part III; Part IV.

Record Label: Nonesuch Records

Style: Classical


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