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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 8, No. 8

Maestro's Choice, Steve Reich : Six Pianos

by Véronique Lacroix talks to Réjean Beaucage / May 5, 2003

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In the introduction to the score of Six Pianos (Boosey and Hawkes, in the "Hawkes Pocket Scores" series), Steve Reich wrote that Six Pianos was the outcome of an idea he'd had for a number of years: to compose a work for all the pianos in a piano store. A lot of pianos (especially the larger grands) can produce a compact sound that's impossible to "mould," and the resulting composition is more modest in scope. By using six baby grands or pianinos (small upright pianos), performers can play the kind of music he finds appealing--fast and rhythmically complex, while being close enough for all the players to hear one another.

Steve Reich's compositions are extremely subtle, and the detail in his work is remarkable--simple, yet very precise. For example, he has explored different ways of "phasing" melodic lines (where, using tape loops set at slightly different speeds, melodic lines are slowly shifted out of phase). In Six Pianos (1973) he says he has used a new technique, actually a variant of that used in Drumming in 1971. With this technique he "gradually replaces silence by sound." Before that he had used subtle changes in tempo, but here a new voice emerges bit by bit between the existing ones, slowly filling the silences in the melody. What he's doing is actually filling the holes between the notes with a kind of pointillisme, but one or two notes later, imitating a motif or theme already played. As the holes are filled the phasing of the motif takes shape. With the build-up come new voices--that is, the addition of voices played by the musicians produces yet further voices that are not played as such by the pianists, but which can be heard as "found" melodic patterns created from the overlapping voices of the original theme.

Reich then focuses on the new voices, and this is where his skilful sensitivity is best displayed. He resumes his pointilliste technique, this time adding the notes of the "phantom melody" to the score, which varies the intensity of this voice and focuses attention away from the initial motif.

Recently, I spoke to two composers involved in the "Unions libres II" concert (in which Six Pianos will be performed) about how Steve Reich had influenced them. Their answers were either so diametrically opposed or complementary that I said to myself that you could really find everything in Reich. One composer said he was bowled over by Reich's harmonic and rhythmic work and compared him, rightly in my mind, with Bach for his harmonic clarity and control of details. He also compared Reich to Stravinsky for the clarity of his rhythmical line. The other composer didn't say specifically that he was impressed by the rhythmic and harmonic aspects of Reich's compositions, but focused more on his work with blocks of sound, with volume (both in terms of intensity and mass), and texture. In Drumming, for example, Reich uses drums that are tuned to one another, on which he superimposes a female voice, a piccolo, marimbas, and so on. It reminds one of the Brandenburg Concertos in which Bach has a recorder playing in an orchestra with a trumpet. We don't necessarily hear the recorder in detail; the subtlety lies in the tints that it adds to the colour of the orchestra as a whole and in the composer's control of this fine-honed arrangement. It's a highly polished sound sculpture.

Parallels with Bach and Beethoven

Obviously, Reich's music--or more precisely, minimalist music--has its detractors. What is also called "repetitive music" is based on using a loop, such as is used in pop music especially, but with completely different objectives. If you can forget prejudices, you'll understand perhaps that Steve Reich didn't invent repetition in music! Think about a Bach fugue, where the same motif recurs without pause. It's the rule in a fugue: you begin with eighth notes, then continue with sixteenth notes. As you can't go back, the rhythmical pattern is repeated continually until the end.

Of course, Beethoven and Reich have different reasons for the variations that they give to their rhythmic or thematic cells. If Reich wants to carve sound by focusing on the intensity and the details of timbre, he has to respect certain limitations, if only to allow the audience to follow him. In doing this he makes clear choices, because if he attacks every aspect of the music at once it will go off in all directions with a possibly disappointing result. How can we recognize the phasing process if all aspects of the music are being varied at the same time? I think he has had the extraordinary intuition to make good choices in terms of the quality he wanted to achieve, and this puts him on a level with the great masters that I mentioned just now.

Another of Reich's specialities is to be involved in performing his works, whether on the piano or in the percussion section. He has direct contact with the instruments, and his music profits from a certain "physicality" that takes into account the musicians' intuition. In Six Pianos, for example, the score indicates the possibility of repeating certain motifs six to ten times, or two to four times, or one to three, or three to six, and so on. The work is performed without a conductor. It's up to the musicians to choose, and they can make decisions as they play. Reich considers it "antimusical" to arbitrarily choose a fixed number of repetitions and prefers an approximate result.

The pianists performing Reich's music at the "Unions libres II" concert, and the work by Louis Dufort which it inspired, are Rosalie Asselin, Patrick Beaulieu, Marc Couroux, Brigitte Poulin, André Ristic, and Jeremy Thompson.

[Translated by Jane Brierley]

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