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Steve Reich: You Are (Variations)

John Kelman By

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The liner notes to the Pat Metheny Group's album-length epic The Way Up give special thanks to contemporary composer Steve Reich. On Metheny lists across the internet, fans were asking "who is Steve Reich, and why the thanks?" The best answer to that question is advice to listen to You Are (Variations)—an album that summarizes much of what Reich is about, while managing to differentiate itself from the rest of his significant oeuvre.

One listen to Reich's polyrhythmic pulses and it becomes clear where Metheny found his inspiration for parts of The Way Up that feature similarly complexioned, hypnotic beats. Metheny is, in fact, no stranger to Reich's music, having recorded "Electric Counterpoint" in 1987, playing live over numerous pre-recorded tracks of guitar and bass.

Like "Tehillim" and "Electric Counterpoint," the four-part title suite of You Are (Variations) explores the use of voice as a textural and harmonic focal point. But unlike those earlier compositions, which used lengthier texts, each part of "You Are (Variations)" revolves around a short repeated phrase. And it's what Reich is able to do with those phrases, performed by the 46-piece Los Angeles Master Chorale, which makes it his most enthralling composition in recent years.

Repetition is a fundamental of minimalism, individual instruments reiterating small phrases that interact with those of other instruments, evolving at different rates resulting in a gradual and combined evolution. Pianos—in this case four—and mallet instruments often provide the harmonic and rhythmic foundation over which other instruments layer. Canonical thinking, using both voices and instruments, creates the manifold layers that develop so slowly and hypnotically that one is almost unaware—yet closer examination reveals significant change.

There's a certain logic and precision at play—Reich took six months alone to try numerous phrases in different combinations (in English and Hebrew)—before settling on the four he finally used. The rhythmic potential of each phrase is significant, but so are the actual words. "You are wherever your thoughts are" aptly describes music's effect on consciousness, while "Say little and do much" is the perfect way to describe Reich's musical modus operandi.

Fleshing out the disc is "Cello Counterpoint," Reich's latest entry in a series of pieces exploring polyphony's potential. Like "Electric Counterpoint," the piece can be performed live by an ensemble or, as is the case here, by pre-recording its seven parts with a cellist playing the final part live. Ex-Bang on a Can cellist Maya Beiser excels in delivering a composition that challenges conventional cello works by utilizing concise and rapidly-moving interactions not normally associated with the instrument.

It's also important to note that while Reich still references the minimalist approach he helped found, he's also evolved beyond its more restricted confines. While repetition of small phrases remains at the root of much of You Are (Variations), so too are a more explicit and compelling melodicism, and a sense of thematic development that makes Reich's work transcend prescribed mathematics—becoming instead a rewarding and profoundly musical experience.


Track Listing: You Are (Variations): 1. You Are Wherever Your Thoughts Are; 2. Siviti Hashem L'Negdi (I Place the Eternal Before Me); 3. Explanations come to an End Somewhere; Ehmore M'Aht V'Ahsay Harbay (Say Little and Do Much).

Personnel: Steve Reich: composer; 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 "Cello Counterpoint": Maya Beiser: cello.

Title: You Are (Variations) | Year Released: 2005 | Record Label: Nonesuch Records

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