City Life

Sharps & Flats is a daily music review in Salon Magazine

Published April 14, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

composer Steve Reich first became acquainted with minimalism -- a repetitive musical aesthetic in which change occurs very slowly -- in the early '60s, when he met La Monte Young and Terry Riley. It was Young and Riley who inspired the series of tape-loop pieces Reich recorded in the late '60s, soon followed by such minimalist classics as "Drumming" (1971) and "Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Electronic Organ" (1973), as well as a string of symphonic pieces in the 1980s.

With his latest recording, "City Life," Steve Reich establishes his credentials as a leading composer of our time. The three works on the disc -- "Proverb," "Nagoya Marimbas" and the title work -- embody both the old and the new of Reich's music. With "Proverb," an erstwhile collaboration with Michael Tilson Thomas appears to have been replaced
by a new partnership with Paul Hillier, who conducted the premiere performances of "The Cave" last year. Hillier -- formerly vocalist par excellence of the Hilliard Ensemble -- persuaded Reich to put together a new piece for voice and percussion.

Scored for three sopranos, two tenors, two vibraphones and two electric organs, "Proverb" is a spectacular piece, devoid of the pedantry of some of Reich's earlier vocal music, which sometimes
relied too heavily on sampling. The text of the work, "How small a thought it takes to fill a whole life," is a not only an appropriate metaphor for the piece, but for Reich's entire career. "Proverb" is Reich's own take on medieval French counterpoint. He begins the piece with a simple declamatory theme sung by the sopranos and then reworks it, giving it the sort of gloss we are used to hearing in such works as the finale of the "Four Sections, New York Counterpoint" and "Six Pianos." "Proverb" builds on the tradition of these pieces with a sort of mercurial elegance and brevity that suggest a refined restraint.

Like "Proverb," "Nagoya Marimbas" embodies the very best of the New York composer's work -- it's short, exciting and colorful. Although it is mostly meant as filler, "Nagoya Marimbas" is reminiscent of the percussive works of the 1960s, and as such is a pleasant reminder of the sheer vitality of so much of Reich's music. But the title work is less convincing. A sort of musical soundscape of the city that builds on the same sampling techniques
with which the composer experimented on "Different Trains" and "The Cave," "City Life" is wonderfully creative and shows off Reich's virtuosity. But taken simply as a piece of music, it sounds artificial and labored, and lacks the elegance of so much of Reich's past work. Longtime Reich devotees are likely to find that "City Life" is worth getting for "Proverb" and "Nagoya Marimbas" alone. But those less familiar with Reich would be well-advised to dig deeper into his repertoire (London Symphony's recording of "The Four Sections" under Tilson Thomas on Elektra Nonesuch is particularly notable) for works that outshine this one.

By Matthew Daines

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