Thursday, May 26, 2016

Stephen and Steve: Sondheim Appreciates Reich

Onstage at Lincoln Center for a concert - with - conversation earlier this year, Steve Reich and Stephen Sondheim fairly bubbled with shared enthusiasms and mutual admiration. (watch: Reich and Sondheim: In Conversation and Performance.) One composes music that repeats with only minute changes over long stretches of time, while the other compresses vast stretches of story in song with dramatic music and incisive lyrics. But the connections are clear to longtime fans of Sondheim.

First, as Sondheim himself says during the discussion, "we both are interested in harmony." Both vary the harmony under repeated phrases.  Both men agreed that there's been little harmonic variety in popular songs for the last fifty years or so, which have depended on beat and production values for interest. Sondheim said that rock music did Broadway composers a favor by freeing them from the pressure to write popular songs; he and his colleagues were free to write for the drama.  But both men found interest in the rock group Radiohead.  Reich explained how his latest piece is based on an odd harmonic pivot under the phrase "everything's changed" in a Radiohead song. 

Second, in Sondheim's words, both like "vamps."  In Tin Pan Alley-speak, that's a bit of accompaniment that introduces a song and repeats under the melody:  Think the rolling chords under Sondheim's "Send in the Clowns" or the intro to Kander and Ebb's "New York, New York."  At the end of the Lincoln Center show, we hear a single vamp repeated with little variation during a performance Sondheim's "Someone in a Tree" from the musical Pacific Overtures.  Sondheim adds elements to fill in gaps of the vamp as it repeats, while each singer adds a different perspective on a slice of Japanese history.  The description may sound dry; the song feels joyful.  This, Sondheim tells us, was composed under the influence of his first exposure to Reich's music.

Steve Reich - A Personal Music Journey
When John Simon commented in a review of Sunday in the Park with George that the music -- "if that's what that is" -- was a "superficial" imitation of the "modish minimalism" of Steve Reich, I took it as a challenge:  I'd better get to know the music of Steve Reich.  I started with The Desert Music, Reich's setting of poetry by William Carlos Williams in which block chords sung by voice and brass float in stately succession over waves of pulsing percussion.  Conductor Michael Tilson-Thomas likened it to directing ice bergs.  I was hooked.

I soon added to my collection Reich's exhilarating Tehillim ("Psalms"), Variations for Orchestra, Eight Lines, and Violin Phase.  I branched out to composers who, different as they were, shared with Reich the label "minimalist":  John Adams, Philip Glass, Terry Riley, Michael Nyman.  When Reich in album liner notes mentioned 12th-century composer Perotin and jazz great John Coltrane, he opened up other musical vistas for me.

In those pre-internet days, I sat in the public library to read cover-to-cover a pamphlet Reich published around 1970 to explain that listening to his "process music" was like watching the patterns that shift in sand between our feet as waves recede. Over time, changes accrue to create something quite different from what we saw at the start.  His early music for tape loops, clapping hands, or blocks of wood best fits that description, culminating in the pulsing, shimmering Music for 18 Musicians.

Reich's later music, such as his "counterpoint" series, interweaves ten or so lines pre-recorded by the soloist to make a kind of trampoline from which the live performer can spring into improvisation. Vermont Counterpoint for flute, New York Counterpoint for clarinet, and Electric Counterpoint for guitar, all sharing musical material and structure, each has its own character, thanks to the colors of the instruments.

Still later, Reich used sampling technology to make music from the notes of spoken phrases, adding up to a kind of dramatic collage, as in his marvelous, emotionally touching Different Trains.  Adding video to the mix, with his wife Beryl Korot, he created The Cave, a kind of musical documentary.  They co-wrote Three Tales, a video documentary with live chorus.  This, he said, was as close as he would ever come to writing musical theatre -- although I found a lot of theatrical pleasures in a live performance of Drumming, an austere piece of absolute music (see my appreciation of Drumming in live performance.)

Mutual Appreciation
For a public presentation in 2012,  Sondheim wrote, "Stealing ideas from [Steve] is one of the more satisfying pleasures that I’ve had." He concluded that Reich's music is ...
...a constant delight, by turns dramatic and joyful, its energy infectious, its surprises exhilarating. It is not a coincidence, but astonishing nonetheless, that he comes from a show business family.  Show business may not produce much art but, on occasion, it can produce a first-rate artist, even if indirectly, as this award attests. Recorded for the May 16, 2012 award ceremony where STEVE REICH received the Gold Medal for Music. Mr Sondheim was in China.
Reich returned the compliment by contributing to pianist Anthony De Mare's massive project Liaisons, a program of composers' piano pieces inspired by Sondheim's music.  (See my reflection on Liaisons.)  Naturally, Reich chose "Finishing the Hat" from Sunday, with its lyric about the creative process, and Sondheim's accompaniment composed of repetitive small cells of music, Sondheim's version of Reich's music being a good analog to painter George Seurat's pointillism.  First the song, then Reich's response to it, opened the Lincoln Center concert.

For me, the pleasures of the evening were many.  The performers, including singer-actors Alexander Gemignani (whose father is longtime Sondheim conductor Paul Gemignani), Kate Baldwin, and Michael Cerveris sang in character(s), note-perfectly.  The two composers were jovial and eager to tell how they wrote what they wrote.

If there's a negative, here, it's that all their talk is about stuff they did years ago. To quote "Dot" in Sunday, I send out this plea to both Steves: "Give us more to see." 

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