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Steve Reich: Daniel Variations

John Kelman By

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When a composer creaters an instantly recognizable style, there's always the risk that the listener will become complacent, feeling little variation to distinguish one piece of writing from another. Certainly Steve Reich—one of minimalism's founding fathers who has since gone on to expand his personal concept of the form—bears a number of stylistic markers, making it virtually impossible not to recognize his work. But while his writing is often defined by complex, polyrhythmic pulses created with a number of instruments, his approach has continually evolved over the years in a number of ways. He may be identifiable, but he's far from predictable.

Daniel Variations contains two pieces—the four-part title suite and three-part "Variations for Vibes, Piano & Strings—and picks up, to some degree, where You Are (Variations) (Nonesuch, 2005) left off. With "Daniel Variations" Reich has, once again, selected four sentence fragments—as much for their cadence as their content—as the foundation for each movement of this suite dedicated to the late journalist Daniel Pearl, who was kidnapped and murdered by Islamist extremists in 2002. Reich uses two sources—two from Pearl, including the quote "My name is Daniel Pearl. (I'm a Jewish American from Encino California)," which he spoke while videotaped by the extremists, and two from the Old Testament's "Book of Daniel."

Scored for twelve voices from The Los Angeles Master Choir, four pianos, two clarinets, four strings and six percussionists, the thirty-minute suite contains some of Reich's darkest and most angular writing to date. The first part in particular, "I saw a dream. Images upon my bed and visions in my head frightened me," bears the relentless pulse heard in much of Reich's work, but the soprano and tenor voices mesh in a disquieting dissonance that's less common.

Reich's use of violins, viola and cello—instruments by no means new to Reich, but which are rarely so dominant—also demarcate the suite, most notably in the second movement, "My Name is Daniel Pearl" which, along with the final movement, "I sure hope Gabriel likes my music, when the day is done," provide some light to contrast the more disturbing tenor of the bible-centric movements.

In contrast, "Variations for Vibes, Piano & Strings" is far more optimistic in tone, its defining characteristic being Reich's use of three string quartets alongside the two pianos and four vibraphones. Despite the often fragmentary nature of Reich's melodies, they're always surprisingly singable, another quality that figures large in many of Reich's compositions. The second movement, "Slow," still possesses Reich's persistent forward motion but, with its softer dynamic, is the most unerringly beautiful piece on the disc.



Reich's use of repetition to create a hypnotic effect has been a significant inspiration to Swiss pianist/composer Nik Bärtsch's "Ritual Groove Music" and Pat Metheny and Lyle May's extended composition, The Way Up (Nonesuch, 2005). But while his stylistic markers are unmistakable, albums like Daniel Variations do represent continued evolution—gradual, to be sure, but evolution nevertheless.

Track Listing: Daniel Variations (2006): I Saw a Dream; My name is Daniel Pearl (I'm a Jewish American from Encino California), Let the dream fall back on the dreaded, I sure hope Gabriel like my music, when the day is done; Variations for Vibes, Pianos & Strings (2005): Fast, Slow, Fast.

Personnel: Los Angeles Master Choir, Grant Gershon, conductor (1-4); Tania Batson: soprano (1-4); Karen Hogle Brown: soprano (1-4); Claire Fedoruk: soprano (1-4); Rachelle Fox: soprano (1-4); Marie Hodgson: soprano (1-4); Emily Lin: soprano (1-4); Pablo Cor

Title: Daniel Variations | Year Released: 2008 | Record Label: Nonesuch Records

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