Steve Reich Tries out Two Works May 24, 1973

Private art galleries have seldom served as concert halls, but it is increasingly common for concerts to be presented in SoHo galleries. This usually means sitting on the floor, and sometimes one’s view of the performers is not as good as it would be in a regular concert hall, but open gallery spaces generally have good acoustics, and their flexible lighting facilities can often be put to good use by musicians. Perhaps most important, playing music in an art gallery sets up a healthy relationship between the arts. The concert goers are exposed to a few wall hangings, people who drop in to see exhibits end up hearing some music, and everyone is better off. Steve Reich and Musicians played four times at the John Weber Gallery between May 12 and 17. The features of this program were two new Reich works, each of which is about 25 minutes long.

Reich’s ‘Work in Progress for Six Pianos’ is perhaps the most subtle music he has written, and I like it very much, although my favorite Reich work is still the extraordinary 90-minute ‘Drumming.’ The work for six pianos is a continuous stream of intricate rippling patterns, interrupted only slightly at two points when the lower notes drop out for a moment and the music inconspicuously shifts into another mode. The minor mode 1973/lukas-fosss-mapails, and the music vaguely suggests Slavic or Israeli qualities to me, even though it has nothing to do with the actual harmonic progressions or melodic patterns one finds in these traditional idioms. The six performers played very well. Not only did they stay exactly together, which is no minor accomplishment in a piece this long and this fast, but they have all mastered a rather unusual pianist technique. The touch is dry and percussive, with almost no accents or nuances and no use of the sustaining pedal. The six spinet pianos were slightly amplified, and a subtle ringing quality seemed to emanate from the loudspeakers.

Reich’s ‘Work in Progress for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ’ is a little different stylistically from most of his works. Instead of being a single blend of sound, this piece moves along on several levels. A loud electric organ and two soft female voices offer slow chord progressions, which repeat in little phrases. On another level, glockenspiels and marimbas ripple along in quick patterns, much like the six pianos in the other new piece, though the sound here is rather shrill. On another level, a ‘metallophone,’ which is really just a vibraphone with the motor turned off, inserts loud chords of its own. A third female singer adds short ‘doop doop’ notes, which run along on yet another plane. I found it difficult to tune in on more than one or two levels at once, but no matter whom I listened to, there were always interesting little variations in progress.

As in all Reich’s music, a rigorous logic is behind everything, but the logic is relatively concealed in the new pieces. This was particularly apparent in comparison with the two earlier works presented on the same program. In ‘Clapping Music’ two musicians clap a simple rhythm over and over, with one of them occasionally moving another beat ahead of the other. It ends quite predictably after the cycle has been completed and all the permutations have been stated. ‘Piano Phase’ was performed in an arrangement for two marimbas. The process in this three-section work is not so obvious as in ‘Clapping Music,’ but here too one can hear the patterns shifting through their permutations.

A word should be said about the professional caliber of the well rehearsed ensemble. The musicians are all quite good in their own right, and they have played together for some time, so that they really understand the music and work together admirably. Robert Becker, Stephen Chambers, Tim Ferchen, Russ Hartenberger, Benjamin Herman, James Preiss, Joe Rasmussen, Glen Valez and Reich play the pianos and mallet instruments. Janice Jarrett, Joan LaBarbara and Jay Clayton are the vocalists.