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Steve Reich: Variations

Variations on Steve Reich 

“The function of music is to refresh the spirit and stimulate the mind.” Alluding to J.S. Bach’s title page to the third part of his Clavierübung, Steve Reich once contributed this response to a question about the function of contemporary music. 

It seems paradoxical, on the surface, to posit a kinship between his own aesthetic and one of the central pillars of Western tradition, for Reich has radically shaped how the contemporary world thinks about music and its function. Yet he has accomplished this in part through his mindful reimagining and recontextualizing of traditional techniques—including ones that were standard components of Bach’s arsenal, as we hear in You Are (Variations).

The format of variations is a fitting focus indeed for Miller Theatre’s contribution to the vast range of programs celebrating Steve Reich’s milestone 80th birthday. (The actual date comes in just a little more than two weeks, on October 3.) For this program opening the season, Brad Lubman and Ensemble Signal have chosen a pair of works that, though less frequently encountered than his most iconic scores, embody some of the composer’s abiding preoccupations while adapting and varying the ancient formal technique of variation to a contemporary perspective. 

“For countless numbers of people during the past 45 years or so, Steve Reich has been a very important composer, musical thinker, and source of inspiration,” Lubman observes. “He has certainly touched my life in a profound way, as well as the lives of the musicians of Ensemble Signal. I have found that one can have many sources of inspiration in one’s life, many different people and mentors, different pieces of music, but it’s another thing when a single person and his music continually provide inspiration, fascination, and joy.”

Lubman clearly situates Reich among those composers who stand the test of time because their work stimulates an inexhaustible variety of responses from performers and listeners alike: “Like all great music, you can return to Reich’s greatest pieces time and time again, always making new discoveries and having new perceptions. The musicians of Ensemble Signal and I are very fortunate and thankful to have had—and to continue to have—many wonderful musical experiences with Steve Reich and his music. Most importantly, we are always thrilled to be able to share these experiences with our audiences.”

Daniel Variations (2006)

Reich’s signature “phasing” technique—a process of looping multiple patterns in and out of sync to generate intricate webs of counterpoint — is in essence a variant on the immemorial technique of the canon. Once set in motion, the overlapping lines of the process generate subtle variations on the original material that acquire an almost hallucinatory quality in such seminal early works as It’s Gonna Rain (1965) and Reich’s breakthrough ensemble piece Drumming (1970-71).

Yet as he has enriched his musical language over the decades with more complex harmonic and textural elements—all the while absorbing impulses from a wide spectrum of other idioms he studied closely, including jazz, Balinese gamelan, African percussion, and Hebrew cantillation—Reich has also continued to re-examine ideas and techniques from new angles. He chose the variations format explicitly for his first orchestral piece, Variations for Winds, Strings and Keyboards (1979), which also opened a new chapter in his development. 

In the first decade of the new century, Reich returned to variations as an organizing principle for two works eloquently pairing voice and chamber ensemble. Daniel Variations originated as the composer’s commemoration of the American Jewish reporter Daniel Pearl. Working for the Wall Street Journal, Pearl was abducted and murdered in 2002 by Islamist extremists in Pakistan. Reich became impressed by what he learned about Pearl—including the discovery that music had been important to him (Pearl played violin and mandolin). The Daniel Pearl Foundation, an organization established by Daniel’s parents, Judea and Ruth, which is dedicated to cross-cultural understanding and music, co-commissioned the score. Brad Lubman conducted the Steve Reich Ensemble in the world premiere at the Barbican Centre in London in 2006 on a program paying homage to the composer’s 70th birthday. 

Each of the four movements in Daniel Variations sets a very short text, juxtaposing the ancient (first and third movements) with the contemporary (movements two and four). Reich has said that he was fascinated by the mixture of violence and compassion he found in the Book of Daniel and decided to set those references side by side with images of Daniel Pearl.

The variations are based on “two related harmonic ground plans,” explains Reich in his note on the piece.  “One for the first and third movements uses four minor dominant chords a minor third apart [E minor, G minor, Bb minor, and C# minor]. The other harmonic plan is for the second and fourth movements, using four major dominant chords in the relative major keys [G, Bb, Db, and E]. This gives a darker chromatic harmony to the first and third movements and a more affirmative harmonic underpinning to the second and fourth. Since Daniel Pearl was not only a reporter, but also played the fiddle—particularly jazz and blue grass—the strings take the lead melodically in the second and fourth movements, sometimes doubled by the two clarinets.”

In the first movement (“I saw a dream. Images upon my bed and visions in my head frightened me”), the ancient Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar (ruler of what is modern-day Iraq) asks Daniel to interpret his dream. (In Jewish tradition, Daniel, who is among the exiled prisoners brought to Babylon after the Babylonian capture of Jerusalem, is not grouped among the prophets but does receive a vision of Israel’s destiny.) In an interview with The Guardian, Reich has remarked on the contemporary relevance of the sense of impending terror described in the bible: “We are living in a time when such horrific dreams are a reality.”

A phrase spoken by Daniel Pearl on a videotape his captors made before slaughtering him underlies the second movement (“My name is Daniel Pearl”). Reich calls this simple statement “emblematic of this remarkable person. In Jewish tradition, and in many others, names are indicative of character.” Accents and syncopations further allude to his love of jazz and bluegrass. Reich’s brightened harmonic palette also underscore Pearl’s infectious sense of optimism.

The third movement returns to the frightening biblical dream, now giving Daniel’s response to Nebuchadnezzar: “Let the dream fall back on the dreaded.” The music similarly returns to the dark, oppressive mood of the first. In the fourth movement, the darkness lifts as Reich sets another quote from Pearl (“I sure hope Gabriel likes my music, when the day is done”) alluding to the title (though not the music) of a track by the jazz violinist Stuff Smith and the Onyx Club Orchestra that friends found in Pearl’s record collection after his death. Reich explains that when Pearl was once asked about his belief regarding the afterlife, he replied. “I don’t have answers, mainly just questions” and then quoted the title of the Smith song.  “The addition of ‘when the day is done’ is my own,” writes the composer. “I hope Danny would approve.” Daniel Variations comes to a surprisingly quiet end: Reich dispenses no catharsis for the tragedy, leaving us instead with a sense of a vital personality silenced in the midst of his flourishing. 

You Are (Variations) (2004)

In some ways Daniel Variations carries on, in darker mode, processes that Reich began exploring two years earlier in You Are (Variations). The sound worlds of both scores share striking similarities: the exclusion of low voices (two sopranos and two tenors in Daniel Variations and four female voices plus two tenors in the earlier work), as well as the timbre created by a battery of four pianos and other tuned percussion (four vibraphones versus two each of vibraphones and marimbas).

You Are (Variations) also shares with Daniel Variations a four-movement plan, each movement setting up an exchange between the instrumentarium and vocal settings of thought provoking texts. Indeed, the texts in You Are (Variations) are particularly freighted with significance belying their brevity. And both compositions look back over Reich’s earlier body of work in their approach to text setting and the use of the human voice as well as in the content evoked by the texts. In such pivotal works as Different Trains (1988), Reich used pre-recorded words played back on tape to generate musical materials for the live players (string quartet). The process in You Are (Variations) also derives from the pre-existing character of the words. As the composer explains: “Since these texts are all quite brief, it was natural to repeat them with a somewhat different musical setting in each repeat. Hence variations were basically forced on me as a form by my choice of texts. The actual means of variation varies considerably.”

A student of philosophy as an undergraduate at Cornell, Reich wrote his thesis on Wittgenstein, whose words he sets in the third movement of You Are (Variations); previously, another quote from the philosopher had served as the basis for Proverb (1995) (a work that plays an intriguing role in Richard Powers’s recent novel Orfeo). But Reich has also spoken of a move from abstract philosophical concerns to spiritual ones, which began around 1974, when he began studying biblical Hebrew and the Torah at the Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York City. “All this practice and all this meditation made its way into my work and the way I think about my work,” the composer told Thomas Rain Crow and Nan Watkins in a 1998 interview.

Philosophical and spiritual wisdom are gathered together in You Are (Variations), which as a whole has the character of a kind of indicator of abiding interests for Reich. In a conversation with the composer for the Nonesuch recording made by Grant Gershon and the Master Chorale, who commissioned and premiered the work in 2004, the critic Tim Page observes that the result suggests “a summing up of things that have been important to [Reich] over the course of [his] lifetime.” At the same time, and in a characteristically Reichian twist, this retrospective element coexists with new paths. As the composer puts it, “I started off working in a familiar way … [but] by the time all the instruments and voices and especially the four pianos in You Are had made their appearance, I found myself in some new and surprising harmonic territory.”

To prepare for the composition, Reich spent six months culling and combining the ideal balance of texts he wanted to set. He explains the origins of each: “The first text is an English translation from Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, one of the most magnetic and profound of the late 18th-century Hasidic mystics. The quote is from his Likutey Moharan I:21. The second text is from Psalm 16 in the original Hebrew and translates as ‘I place the Eternal before me.’ The third is an English translation from the German of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. The fourth quote is from Pirke Avot, one of the earliest parts of the Talmud and by far its most popular tractate. The Hebrew, from Rabbi Shammai, translates as ‘Say little and do much.’” Overall, the music for You Are (Variations) took about 14 months to write. 

In this case, Reich ended up varying the variation principle as follows, as he writes about the first movement, by far the longest of the four: “Starting out, I made a harmonic ground plan with a short cycle of chords that would serve as the underpinning for all the variations, as has been done historically numerous times before. However, having completed the first setting of ‘You are wherever your thoughts are,’ the second time I started to vary the harmonies. As I went on, they departed further from the original ground plan. I frankly enjoyed this immensely since I was following spontaneous musical intuition. In the third variation there are quotes from ‘L’homme Armé,’ the popular song from the 14th century. Starting with the fifth variation I began piling all four pianos on top of each other with conflicting harmonies that produce something new and extremely energetic. In the sixth variation one may hear echoes of James Brown.”

Setting the second movement’s Hebrew text, Reich deploys repetitions and augmentation to create what he calls “a kind of slow-motion canon with marimbas, vibes, and pianos driving it on in constantly changing meters.” The first two movements are joined without pause, but a break precedes the third section, a slow movement whose variations are based on minor-tinged harmonies, followed by another Hebrew setting for the canon-based fourth movement, which reverts to the original pulsing tempo that began You Are but deploys the technique of “augmenting canons” that drives the second movement. 

“What unites the piece harmonically,” according to the composer, “is a constantly recurring D major dominant chord—usually with G, rather than A in the bass. This bright ray of D major light illuminates most of the piece, most intensely in the final movement.”

Wittgenstein’s opening epigram, Reich has said, might be taken to offer “a pretty good description of the act of listening to music, if one is listening at all closely. You are wherever the music takes you.”

Program Notes by Thomas May