Friday, December 5, 2008

Post Reich

Despite the occasional report of classical music's demise, the term is growing in popularity to describe hybrids with other genres of music, which often get tagged as "post-classical". Without trying to insert myself into the debate, some of my recent musical discoveries seem independently to take inspiration from the music of Steve Reich, in particular his tendency to work with repetitive motifs, clear compositional strategies, relatively simple harmonies, and looping structures.

Walled Gardens by itsnotyouitsme was recently on the New York Times' holiday gift guide for classical music, a staggering head-scratcher seemingly based on the performers' resumés rather than the music on this album. The group's two performers, Caleb Burhans and Grey McMurray, are both stalwarts of New York's new music scene, and Burhans is a charter member of the new music ensemble Alarm Will Sound which performs Reich's music regularly. Three of the four pieces on Walled Gardens are loop pieces, similar to Pedaltone, but primarily for violin and electric guitar, with a little bit of Burhans' countertenor voice discreetly doubling the violin.

On Throne Built for the Past, a gently arpeggiated guitar line sustains a violin lead over an irregular meter, as the duo aggregate little electronic noises in the background, growing to quite a squall. Great Day starts with a four-bar rhythm on pizzicato violin and chordal guitar fills, growing into a full band sound. A Moment for Nick Drake is more fully notated (it also exists as a solo piano piece), based around a fingerpicked guitar with a violin lead that grows in complexity as the piece continues. The stunning finale (with a great title, We Are Malleable, Even Though They Seem To Own Us) grows from a short minor-key pizzicato motif to a majestic mass of drones. I am continually astonished by the variety of textures that loopers can get from a small number of performers, so even though I wonder about the NYT review's bewildering categorization, I have to concur with its positive assessment of the album.

Classical music is also a reference point for certain new ambient musicians who use more acoustic instruments and share the same fondness for repetition and loops. One such composer is the Polish musician Michał Jacaszek, whose recent album Treny seems to share with itsnotyouitsme a common inspiration in the music of Steve Reich. Treny has eleven pieces, most in the five-minute range, that share a common structural paradigm, setting up some kind of simple ostinato, then adding other instruments in layers. The originating patterns can be short melodic lines, two-note oscillations, or even a succession of nearly identical downbeats. Much of the album's beauty comes in the layers, where Jacaszek uses piano, harp, violin, cello, and wordless female vocals, sung by Maja Sieminska. But what makes Treny unique is the electronics, which go way beyond the simple treatments often associated with acoustic instruments in the ambient world. For example, on Powoli (Slowly), he uses perfectly timed piano samples, some of which may have the attack completely stripped, and each of which has its own resonance. The changes in background noise become an additional timbre that defines the rhythm of the piece. On Lament, dry clicks combine with little sounds played backwards to create subaquatic effects that support the lush foreground music in the voice and strings. Treny translates to 'Trains'*, perhaps a reference to one of Reich's most famous pieces, Different Trains, but certainly quite different from the fast-paced, railroad-running, comin-around-the-mountain music typically associated with trains, but gorgeous and tranquil chamber pieces with electronics.

Walled Gardens is released on New Amsterdam Records and is also available on iTunes and emusic. Treny is released outside of Poland on the Norwegian label Miasmah and is available for download from Thrill Jockey and Boomkat (the latter in either mp3 or flac). The webcast of Steve Reich's 70th birthday celebration at the Whitney Museum, including several pieces performed by Alarm Will Sound and Caleb Burham's piece Amidst Neptune, is available here.

*Couldn't have been more wrong on the translation. See comments for details.


piotr tkacz said...

"Treny" means "Laments" - I think that it was a hint to a well known (in Polish literature) cycle of poems by Kochanowski:

Caleb Deupree said...

Thanks for the correction. I plugged the word into one of the online Polish-English dictionaries and came up with Trains, which didn't make much sense to me. Laments is surely a better title for the set.