Music ensemble Signal to spotlight Steve Reich’s minimalist standards

Audiences will get a chance Saturday to hear how the music of Steve Reich, left, has evolved over th

Audiences will get a chance Saturday to hear how the music of Steve Reich has evolved over the past 30 years.

Signal, a large ensemble founded in 2008 of mostly New York-based musicians committed to performing contemporary music, will perform “Music for 18 Musicians” (1974-76) and “Double Sextet” (2008). Brad Lubman, the group’s co-founder, will conduct the second work.

Reich, who will celebrate his 75th birthday this year in numerous festivals around the world, is considered a pioneer of minimalism. This was an experimental compositional style, which first gained attention in the 1960s. It focused on consonant harmonies and repeated phrases or motifs that may gradually transform. Reich, Terry Riley, John Adams and Philip Glass are among the most famous composers of this genre.

Fulfilling work

But Reich, like Glass, wanted to make sure his music would be played as he wanted it, and well. So in 1966, he founded his own group of players called the Steve Reich Ensemble. By the premiere on April 24, 1976, of his “Music for 18 Musicians,” Reich’s music had attracted a large enough fan base that the ensemble began to tour internationally. About 25 years ago, Lubman became Reich’s music director and oversaw many premieres of his work, including “The Cave” (1991) and “City Life” (1995). He has also worked extensively with other composers, including Pierre Boulez, Luciano Berio, Charles Wuorinen and Helmut Lachenmann.

Signal plays Reich

WHERE: Experimental Media Performing Arts Center, 110 Eighth St., Troy

WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday

HOW MUCH: $15, $10, $5

MORE INFO: 276-3921,

“It’s quite fulfilling to work with a living composer and be at his premieres,” Lubman said from Rochester, where he’s the Eastman School of Music’s associate professor of conducting and the director of the Eastman Musica Nova. “Reich is full of musical integrity, he’s an interesting person, an inspiring person.”

Although Reich’s own ensemble had recorded “18” on Nonesuch, Lubman believed more groups would be interested in recording it. So in 1997, he supervised the rehearsals of Ensemble Moderne, a new music group founded in 1989 in Frankfurt, Germany, which went on to record the work in 1998 on the BMG label.

“The problem was how the music was notated” said Signal co-founder and cellist Lauren Radnofsky. “The whole piece wasn’t written down for others to play. A realization was made by Mark Mellitz [a graduate student at Cornell University].”

55-minute work

“Music for 18 Musicians” is for four pianos, four women’s voices, three marimbas, two xylophones, a metallophone (a vibraphone without a motor), a violin, cello and two clarinets that double on bass clarinet. Other percussion instruments, such as maracas, play occasional color. The work is 55 minutes long.

In Reich’s commentary on his publisher’s website, he said he continued to use certain stylistic methods, such as steady pulses and a high, propulsive and rhythmic energy, similar to past compositions. But the work’s structure, harmony and instrumental choices were new.

Waves of sound

The work is centered on the rhythms of a human breath. A singer takes a full breath and sings for as long as her breath can last. As the other three singers do the same thing and stagger this over several phrases, waves of sound are created. The instrumentalists follow the same patterns with harmonies based on a specific set of 11 chords, and these motifs last the length of two breaths. As these are built up, canons are created, and patterns similar to those used in Balinese gamelan or West African music can result.

In 1999, a recording of the work by Reich’s ensemble (Nonesuch) received a Grammy Award. It was Reich’s second Grammy. His first was in 1990 for “Different Trains” with the Kronos Quartet on the Nonesuch label.

Signal has performed the work many times, Radnofsky said, including two notable concerts in 2008 at New York City’s Le Poisson Rouge, in which critics hailed the group for its “vibrant, euphoric performances.” While groups who are less familiar with the piece might find all those repeated phrases daunting, for Signal it’s a breeze.

“There is a lot of repetition, but we don’t get lost,” Radnofsky said laughing. “The piece is very long, so we keep a kind of intense focus.”

Although the work doesn’t use a conductor, Lubman, a former percussionist, will play a bit of marimba in the last movement for color, he said.

A prize-winning work

Reich’s “Double Sextet” is very different. Written for two flutes, two clarinets, two pianos, two violins, two cellos and two percussion and in three movements, it was originally meant to be performed with one live sextet and one sextet that had made a prerecorded tape. It premiered March 26, 2008. In 2009, it received a Pulitzer Prize.

The idea is to have two identical groups each play interlocking patterns of music, which, when they interweave, become a maelstrom of pulses. Signal prefers to perform the work with two live sextets.

“Compared to ‘18,’ the ‘Double Sextet’ has a harmonic language that is more extensive than in any of his previous pieces,” Lubman said. “He’s broadened the palette. There are other colors or shades. It’s a shifting of the compositional concern.”

As with most of Reich’s work, there is an aural tradition that reflects what Lubman calls Reich’s Bach/Stravinsky connections.

“His music has a purity, even austerity, about it and the listening is actively participatory,” he said.

The tradition also extends to how the musicians play in that they use little vibrato, Radnofsky said.

Education opportunity

Because Signal is in recording residence at the hall, it will record both works prior to the concert for a yet undisclosed release date. And within weeks, they’ll perform the works again at Vassar, Le Poisson Rouge, and do workshops on them at Eastman.

“We try to bring some education to newer musicians,” Radnofsky said. “For a lot of us, we grew up listening to Reich’s music in high school or college. It’s a huge part of why we love to play it.”

But they and other Signal members are what she calls the second generation of Steve Reich fans, and it’s important to pass on their understanding of how to interpret his music to today’s younger players, she said.

Categories: Life and Arts

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