This album is satisfying on several levels. It is a return to the label that contained the composer’s his first big release, the three disc set on DG which contained “Drumming” (1971), “Six Pianos”, and “Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices, and Organ” (both from 1973). Of course it was the ECM release of “Music for 18 Musicians” (1974-6) that became his signature work incorporating the experimentation heard in the music in that DG box set into the composer’s now familiar mature compositional language. The present release, also available on vinyl, seemingly reflects the post experimental composer’s grappling with the oh, so classical form of the string quartet. It’s a truly fine release and an homage to the composer.
Like many of his peers, Reich eschewed many of the conventions of western art music. His work at the San Francisco Tape Music Center helped him discover “phasing” and use of the speaking voice as a compositional element. His study with master drummers in Ghana taught him about quasi improvisational large ensembles and his subsequent study of Hebrew cantillation further refined his understanding of speech and song in his compositional contexts.
As he is quoted in the accompanying booklet, Reich never thought of attempting to use the string quartet form in his work. But along came the delightfully forward looking and genre breaking Kronos Quartet. That collaboration brought forth his landmark, “Different Trains” (1988). And the rest is, as they say, history. “Triple Quartet” for string quartet and tape (but no voices) came in 1998 and his WTC 9/11 (2010) which used sampled voices much as he did in Different Trains.
To be fair, Reich never appears to have intended to engage with the classical form of the string quartet (or any other classical forms for that matter). He uses the convenient availability of musicians sympathetic and sufficiently skilled to perform his compositions. The fact that they happen to be in string quartets is incidental. Much as the inclusion of a singer (as Schoenberg did) bent the quartet to fit his compositional goals, many have subsequently done similar alterations and additions to that classical ensemble. The difference is that Schoenberg adding a soprano, Kirchner (among others) adding electronics, etc. did so but clearly defined their works as “string quartets”. Reich did not do this but this disengagement with classical forms (string quartet, concerto, symphony, etc.) does not detract from the absolute quality of his music.
It would be unfair and would miss the point to try to judge these works via comparison and contrast with Haydn, Beethoven, Bartok, etc. In fact these works are not a part of that canon. Ultimately they stand on their own as part of Reich’s unique vision as a composer and, as such, they succeed very well.
WTC 9/11 and Different Trains are political statements with specific spoken word samples entered into a musical counterpoint. They succeed very well as protest and memorial for the respective events they frame. Triple Quartet, however, is absolute music concerned solely with Reich’s largely contrapuntal techniques of shifting repeated patterns. All three works succeed very well in their ability to engage audiences. All three are finely wrought compositions by by a major composer true to his maverick, experimental beginnings, true to the artist’s personal vision.
The Mivos Quartet does a fine job of navigating these technically difficult works and produce a fitting homage to a wonderful composer and make a strong case for the deeply substantial nature of this music. This is a great release. Highly recommended.