The title of last night’s concert at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) by the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players (SFCMP), consisting of three compositions by Steve Reich, was entitled Confirmation. According to the introductory remarks by Artistic Director Steven Schick for the program book, the title came from Reich himself. It concerned a trip Reich made to West Africa in 1970. When asked, upon his return, about what he got out of the trip, he replies with the single word, “Confirmation.” What he meant was that the trip reinforced ideas he had already been developing as a composer.
We now identify those pre-1970 ideas with what is called the “phase” period of Reich’s composition work. This involved taking a repeated pattern and superposing it on a copy that gradually shifts the phase: The pattern is duplicated, but the onset time of the copy gets progressively later than that of the original. With all the diligence of a serious researcher, Reich wanted to explore what would happen if the phase shifted through a full cycle, until the onset is so late that it coincides with the beginning of the next copy of the pattern.
Initially, Reich experimented with a special technology of tape recorder that allowed playback to be delayed without lowering the pitch. The experiments eventually led to compositions for which phase-shifting was a major (but not exclusive) structural element The best known of these pieces are “It’s Gonna Rain” (1965) and “Come Out” (1966), both of which involved source recordings of the speaking voice.
He then applied the technique to instrumental music. A soloist would record the pattern as a tape loop and then play against the tape. The performer would be responsible for the gradual phase shifting. By the time Reich had progressed to “Violin Phase” in 1967, he was using two tape loops with the second halfway through the cycle of shifts. The soloist (originally Paul Zukofsky) began with the first tape and gradually shifted the phase of his performance. At the halfway mark the second tape is introduced. At this point the soloist is instructed to listen for patterns in the complex overlay and to play along with them as reinforcement. Reich called this a “chalk talk,” an improvised exposition on the texture of the superposed tape loops.
“Clapping Music,” composed in 1972, began as an effort to take the recordings out of the loop, so to speak. It began as a phase-shift composition for two performers clapping their hands to a repeated rhythm. One would maintain the pattern while the other shifted the phase. This turned out to be too complex; so the shifts took place on a beat-by-beat resolution, rather than a gradual one. The effect of new rhythmic patterns emerging from the superposition was as strong as ever, and performance was more accommodating for more people interested in presenting the work.
Last night’s program began with “Clapping Music,” with each of the two parts taken by a pair of percussionists. The first pair was Schick and Daniel Kennedy; the second was William Winant and Chris Froh. The effect of emerging patterns was as strong as ever, leading me to wonder whether or not the performers were adjusting their dynamics to play with that process of pattern formation as the piece unfolded. The duration of the work was only about five minutes, and I have had the good fortune to hear it in concert several times. Last time was my first encounter with doubling the parts; and the result was just as effective, if not more so because of the intense commitment of twice as many people.
“Clapping Music” provides an excellent example of just what had been “confirmed” for Reich during his visit to Africa. I would suggest that the most important element in Reich’s methods has been one of creating a context of a highly complex fabric of rhythmic and/or melodic sources and then exploring how threads in that fabric arise through perception, rather than construction. Performance is not just a matter of building up the complexity through highly focused execution. It is also a matter of listening for the patterns that emerge from that execution. Both of the remaining works on the program explored this approach in new directions.
“Clapping Music” was followed by “Electric Counterpoint,” composed in 1987 for the guitarist Pat Metheny. In this composition the texture was originally established by recordings (made by Metheny) of ten parts for guitar and two for electric bass. Metheny then performed against the tape with a solo part consisting of motifs that would fit into and enhance the background texture. Structurally, the music draws heavily on imitation through canon, with the texture arising from the large number of voices participating in the canon. By the last of the three movements (performed without interruption), the score also begins to explore a shift in tonality, whose first encounter hits the listener as a jolt to the prevailing context.
“Electric Counterpoint” was the third in a series of “counterpoint” compositions, following “Vermont Counterpoint” for the flutist Ransom Wilson and “New York Counterpoint” for the clarinetist Richard Stoltzman. Not long after recording “Vermont Counterpoint,” Wilson performed it in concert with his newly-formed Solisti New York Orchestra in a program called Meet the Minimalists. On this occasion, all of the parts that Wilson had prerecorded on tape were taken by his students, and the impact of the entire texture emerging from a stage full of flutists was both overwhelming and exhilarating.
Last night David Tanenbaum, the SFCMP “resident” guitarist, took the same approach with the Conservatory Guitar Ensemble. This brought together fifteen of Tanenbaum’s students (past and present) to perform “Electric Counterpoint.” The solo part on electric guitar was taken by alumnus Travis Andrews (M.M., 2009), the guitarist in The Living Earth Show, the duo he formed with percussionist Andrew Meyerson that performed in the SFCM Alumni Showcase Recital at the beginning of the season. The two bass guitars were also electric, and all other guitars were acoustic. Tanenbaum conducted the entire Ensemble.
What was most impressive about this performance was the clarity of the individual lines. One could appreciate the fine detail behind the texture established as context for the soloist. This was probably due, at least in part, to the spatial separation of the performers. With all that detail so evident, one could then better appreciate the solo line and its relationship to that context. If “Clapping Music” provided the listener with “ground rules” for how to approach Reich’s work, then “Electric Counterpoint” provided a vivid account of just how far those rules could go.
After an extended pause to reconfigure the stage, the concert concluded with the longest work on the program, “Music for 18 Musicians,” completed in March of 1976 after almost a year of effort. Like Terry Riley’s “In C,” which was composed in 1964 (and was the highlight of the SFCMP 40th Anniversary Gala Concert in April of 2011), “Music for 18 Musicians” is structured around a steady rhythmic pulse. However, while Riley’s pulse consisted of a single pitch (C in octaves), Reich’s is richer in harmonic content and shared by pianos and mallet instruments. Through the other instruments that pulse unfolds into a cycle of eleven chords, which, in Reich’s own words, serves as “a kind of pulsing cantus” (referring to the twelfth-century origins of counterpoint) for the entire composition.
That unfolding is structurally intricate, drawing upon a variety of different approaches to imitative counterpoint as well as that fundamental appreciation of the context of thick texture. Unlike the other works that had been based on recording tapes as part of the compositional process, this piece was entirely instrumental. Thus, like Tanenbaum’s performance of “Electric Counterpoint,” much of the listening experience emerged from the spatial qualities of the disposition of instruments across the stage. Only four of those instruments were not percussion (counting piano as percussion): a violin (Roy Malan), a cello (Stephen Harrison), and two clarinets (Jeff Anderle and Peter Josheff, both doubling on bass clarinet). There were a total of four pianos, four vocal lines, and a diversity of mallet instruments (along with maracas introduced towards the end of the work).
Progression is established through shifts in instrumentation. This provides a “background” texture that is no longer uniform but is gradually moving across different domains of sonorities. Through the layout of the instruments, one could better appreciate those domains, since they were reflected by different spatial areas on the stage.
The result was a bold journey into an elaborate weaving together of contrapuntal texture, evolving sonorities, and a lexically economic vocabulary of melodic motifs. The impact was stunning. I am not sure when I have encountered an audience that gave itself so thoroughly in attention to the hour during which that journey unfolded. If there were any signs of restlessness, I was never aware of them; and, as I looked around, I saw eyes fixed on the stage with almost religious commitment.
Last night’s title could not have been more appropriate. It was a true celebration of that “confirmation” that Reich discovered through his trip to Africa. However, it was just as much a confirmation of the SFCMP mission and the value of the listening experiences arising from that mission.