Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Chicago percussion group pays 80th-birthday tribute to Steve Reich

Steve Reich appeals to percussionists.
Though they've been brought more to the fore across music of the past century, percussionists get to dip their toes in the mainstream rewardingly in the music of Steve Reich, who long ago moved from outsider to central figure among living American composers. He's not splashy, but the focus and elaboration he has extended to mallet percussion in particular have made him a venerated figure among the bang gang.

The 11-year-old Chicago ensemble called Third Coast Percussion unfolds a full-out tribute on Cedille Records (CDR 900000 161).

The earliest work here, "Music for Pieces of Wood" (1973), shows the Reich process of "phase shifts," rooted in a structure meant to be immediately perceived by the listener, in this case with the expansion of a short figure one note at a time.

The effect is to reshape the dominant pattern subtly, bringing a new balance to it each time it recurs. Five pieces of tuned wood are used; Matthew Duvall of eighth blackbird is credited "for keeping the pulse."

The Reich style had come to full flower by the time of "Mallet Quartet" (2009), which opens the disc in a performance by all four TCP members: Sean Connors, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin, and David Skidmore. In three linked movements, "Mallet Quartet" ascends toward greater variety of register as it goes along, with more frequent use of accented notes. It makes for a mallet-driven "gradus ad parnassum" as it succeeds the meditative slow movement, with its short, precisely timed pauses.

Reich had shown his expressive reach well before his canonization as an old master in the present century. "Sextet" (1985), with guest artists David Friend and Oliver Hagen on piano, is both captivating and bewildering. It's easy to get lost in its waves of sound, breadth of timbre and dynamics, and the kaleidosopic bursts of accents. It's my favorite of the disc's five works, though I don't pretend to understand it fully. I especially enjoyed the first of two movements headed "Moderate," with the piano contribution meditative, but in a detached way, set against long tones from bowed mallet instruments.

Completing the program is a seductive marimba duo, "Nagoya Marimbas" (1994), whose debt to Japanese pentatonic scales is signaled in the title. It's typical of Reich's ensemble music in the tight rapport required of the players, and is particularly demanding in matters of tempo and dynamics, with the repetitive patterns being played evenly and very softly.