Steve Reich: Triple Quartet

Steve Reich
Triple Quartet

Steve Reich’s compositional genius and influence over contemporary music — especially over recent developments in electronic music — have established him as a living legend. Perfecting the sound of minimalism since the 1960s, the composer’s work has played such a substantial role in music that attempts at equating and mimicking his trademark melodies can now be heard everywhere, from television to radio advertisements to clubs. No one, though, has mastered the art as definitively as Reich.

Triple Quartet is the composer’s first release to include new music since his 1996 album, City Life (Nonesuch), but it also contains new recordings of the classic Reich compositions, “Music for Large Ensemble” and “Electric Guitar Phase”, the latter being a reworking of the 1967 piece, “Violin Phase”. Also included on the record is a version of “Vermont Counterpoint”, called “Tokyo/Vermont Counterpoint”.

The title track, “Triple Quartet” (1999), was commissioned by and dedicated to the Kronos Quartet. Divided into three movements, “Quartet” immediately brings to mind the string quartets of Hungarian composer Béla Bartók. And there is a reason for this. Reich found inspiration to compose his “Quartet” in the last movement of Bartók’s “String Quartet No. 4”, as well as in the music of Alfred Schnittke.

With an oppressed and often overwhelmingly dissonant sound, Reich’s quartet, which is to be performed either by an orchestral string section of 36 players, three string quartets (12 players), or one string quartet and pre-recorded tape — Kronos performs it employing the latter method — is one of his more haunting compositions. Following the three movements’ unyielding progression, Kronos attacks the intricate piece with an energy that does not cease until sometime after the final notes are played.

Immediately following “Triple Quartet”, Dominic Frasca performs “Electric Guitar Phase”, and surprisingly alters the mood of the original, “Violin Phase”. Frasca’s four slightly distorted guitar parts, which vary in speed and have been overdubbed, add a sharpness to the notes which violin simply cannot achieve. The gritty sound of the guitar causes the differentiation between notes in each of the layers to stand as a more ‘geometric’ structure than in the original. And from this, the melodic changes are further accentuated as volume levels increase and decrease almost organically.

The record closes with “Tokyo/Vermont Counterpoint”, which acquired its name from the homeland of the performer, Mika Yoshida. Originally for a wind ensemble, Yoshida performs the piece on MIDI marimbas. Attempted by others on marimbas and xylophones, the results have always been muddied because of the lengthy note duration of the marimba. However, Yoshida’s use of electronic marimba gives her the opportunity to shorten the duration of each note, by actually triggering samples rather than the acoustic and untouched note. Thus, each note is allowed to sound more clearly and not muffle the rest. A side effect, though, is that the piece adopts a humorous edge, as each note feels bubbly, as if bouncing or popping from one to the next.

Over the span of Steve Reich’s career, he has explored many incarnations of music. African drumming, Hebrew chanting, and Gamelan, just comprise a few of his successful studies. Throughout all of these experiences, his passion for music has remained the steady force behind his explorations.

With Triple Quartet, Nonesuch Records offers a brief glimpse at the composer’s career at it’s beginning, middle, and present — which is far from its conclusion — as reinterpreted by a contemporary assemblage of performers. While certain performers maintain the instruments traditionally intended for the pieces’ performances, others prove the precise versatility and timelessness of Reich’s compositions by performing them with modern electronic counterparts.

This crisp recording offers some of the best of Reich’s work to introduce a first time listener, but it also accentuates undertones and thoughts perhaps not realized before for veteran enthusiasts.