On Thursday evening, February 9, 2017, Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music’s Contemporary Music and Percussion Ensembles, led by conductor Alan Pierson, hosted a tribute concert to legendary composer Steve Reich, who attended, performed, and shared an informal informative dialogue with Pierson about the concepts and processes he used to create the music on the program. The event was held at Pick-Staiger Hall, 50 Arts Circle Drive, on the Evanston campus, a gem of an acoustically perfect performance space, where Reich had been in residence for 3 days after winning the Michael Ludwig Nemmers Prize in Music Composition.
The students performed 3 famous works of Reich’s musical art in the sold-out hall, which was filled with ecstatic young people, who, like generations of music aficionados, adore and revere the music of the octogenarian genius. There was so much palpable excitement and happiness in the hall, emanating from Pierson and Reich himself, the performers and the audience, the room fairly buzzed with it.
This reviewer certainly expected these students to be wholly competent, but the level of performance was nothing short of amazing, given their collective youth. The belief I came away with, therefore, was that the compositions themselves coupled with the encouragement of Reich, Pierson and the other musical directors provided the impetus for each musician to dig deep and produce the absolute best from within. The concert consisted of 3 spectacular compositions:
“Clapping Music”, 1972, is a minimalist piece created by this “Father of Minimal Music”, which, he explained to Pierson and the audience, was crafted such that it “would need no instrument beyond the human body”. Performed this evening in duets, including Reich and Pierson together, it’s a mesmerizing percussive experience- a variation of the a fundamental African “bell pattern”- in which one performer keeps one line of a 12 eighth-note long phrase while the other performer in the clapping pair shifts by one beat every 12 bars. 144 bars later, both performers are back in unison; each time he reached this point, Pierson bowed elegantly to Reich.
In 1995, Reich used “sampling techniques” to compose “City Life”, conducted this evening by Pierson. All the instruments except the “unpitched” percussion are amplified. Digital samplers among the instruments play a variety of sounds and speech samples, recorded by Reich when he lived in New York City. Reich described how he “hates noise,” so how very interesting it is that he collected sounds many would describe that way! These effects are common to a busy city, like car and boat horns (these last from the Staten Island Ferry), alarms and sirens, heartbeats and subway chimes, and, perhaps most intriguingly, Reich explained, bits of actual field communications from the New York Fire Department captured during the first bombing of the World Trade Center, in 1993.
Some of the repetitive speech fragments have their “speech melody”- intonational speech patterns Reich transferred to instrumental melody notation- performed by some of the instruments in the Ensemble. The work is absorbing and surpassingly brilliant in conception and execution. Pierson’s elegant hands resembled sculpted birds as they led the students in this oh-so-memorable piece.
The final piece on the program, entitled “Music for 18 Musicians”, was composed between 1974-1976. It relies on the use of vibraphones that cue the ensemble to change patterns or sections, requires extensive doubling and is based on a cycle of 11 chords. It has an increasingly intense set of rhythms; I found it impossible not to move to the music, as did many of the performers, especially including the young vocalists who breathed into the microphones while keeping the fulsome beat with their shoulders and hips, smiling and nodding- as did much of the audience. The number and groupings of performers created “psycho-acoustic” effects. The augmentation of harmony and melody aid considerably in the dramatic development of this trance-inspiring piece that literally and figuratively pulsates with glorious, exciting and novel musical sounds.
In a particularly compelling way, this concert experience was the culmination of a continuing- and marvelous- example of pedagogical “paying it forward”. Conductor Alan Pierson studied-and grew to love- the work of Reich while a student, and now is helping to provide this experience for his own student musicians. Incidentally, this is not the first time Pierson has taken part in a concert of Reich’s music at which the composer has appeared; he did a performance with Reich present when he was a student himself, and there have been many since then! The photos of the two of them included in this article demonstrate the enduring affection each feels for the other.
Unless otherwise noted, all photos by Todd Rosenberg