In Vienna and New York, concert halls were enriched with the sounds of some of the West’s best new music by two living composers, Steve Reich and Eva Reiter. Of different generations, the former has established a distinct and important identity within the legacy of the 20th and 21st centuries, and the latter has found a compelling new personal language.
Viennese composer Eva Reiter enjoyed a spectacular day in the spotlight in her hometown on Nov. 9 in the midst of the Wien Modern’s annual month-long festival of contemporary music. In the Mozart-Saal in Vienna’s Konzerthaus, three of her compositions – one of which was commissioned by one of the festival’s prominent sponsors, Erste Bank – and performed by members of the estimable Klangforum Wien ensemble, received rapturous applause. It was well deserved, because this young woman has found a unique musical expression that engages, entertains, and intrigues, simultaneously.
Her “In groben Zügen” (In rough trains) for string quartet and transducer, she revealed her propensity for creating thrilling top-speed chases through space and time, here via bow action both on-string and off. Her trio: “All Verbindungen gelten nur jetzt” (All connections are now valid) for cello, bass guitar, percussion, tape, and contra-bass recorder (with Reiter playing), she again showed how her sense of built-in moto-perpetuo (even in more spacious and contemplative moments) informed the critical energy stream that propels her wagon. The commissioned piece: “Noch sind wir ein Wort” (We are still a word) she had ten instrumentalists “play” PVC tubes of various lengths alongside string-bass and contra-bass recorder (all of which was amplified) featuring the extraordinary bassist Uli Fussenegger and his hyperactive scrubbing that pulsed and grooved through secret underground passages of no return. There was no conductor for this concoction, just click-tracks for each performer; thus, the worthy sound engineers (Peter Böhm and Florian Bogner) were the gifted participants in the exciting precision-timing of this piece.
Reiter is extremely gifted at building an architectural wonder that’s less about notes and more about structure that wraps you in its electrical charge, while inviting you to watch the fascinating physicality of the performers’s actions – which includes her use of the erstwhile Baroque-era ‘contra-bassblockflöte,’ producing a kaleidoscope of oddball effects. It’s to Erste Bank’s credit that they recognize and support her huge talent.
Other pieces on the program included Friedrich Cerha’s four-part “Relazioni fragili” (Fragile relations) from 1957 for chamber orchestra; Sofia Gabaidulina’s “Quattro” (1974) an enjoyable romp for two trumpets and two trombones, who displayed some clever choreography and a memorably virtuoso trombone cadenza; and Klangforum’s own interpretation of John Cage’s enigmatic “One = 4’33” with a lone antique Gramophone at the center of the stage and a microphone in front of it. Here, it was the engineers’ moment to thrill us.
A Reichian ride through history
If we can pay proper obeisance to Steve Reich’s “Three Tales,” which were performed at his 80th birthday concert in New York’s Carnegie Hall on Nov.1, we’ll bump into this spiky nexus of art, history, religion and psychology. We will feel the prick.
This work, which was the entire second half of the program, is really conceptual art. At first look, it purports to be an entertainment of sorts: stylish videos (the work of his long-time colleague Beryl Korot) exquisitely timed to play a featured role with an instrumental group (International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) and Sö Percussion) and singers (Synergy Vocals) — ably conducted by David Robertson. But the seamless and slick precision of both jarring juxtapositions of often purposely annoying repetitions alongside it, is brilliantly conceived sonic commentary on 20th century political history.
It’s a powerful statement, showing lambs going to the slaughter accompanied by ominous throbbing sounds, doomsday music as Nazis prepare their Luftwaffen, and a spiky underscore to news clips of US government officials claiming dominion over life and death after they detonate an atom bomb in the Bikini Atoll. A chorus of five singers participates – but less as explanation and more as an insidiously smooth running commentary throughout the vivid instrumental texture.
Reich combines Biblical phrases with newspaper headlines being typed to the tip-tap of marimba tones, lots of looped riffing on one word (like “machine”) on the video soundtrack, and quotes from a long list of philosophers and scientists. ”If you want to understand life you must understand I.T.” … “Darwinian natural selection and self-reproduction” [Nature’s predilection for cloning itself], and conversely, “Technology is a continuation of evolution [in its] creating intelligent machines”… are among them. The visual/philosophical life here unfortunately tends to overshadow the ingenious music, all of which which surrounds us without stopping for 60 minutes of a tour-de-force score performed by a powerfully expert team.
But we walk away with a sense of having witnessed something apocalyptic in nature, and definitely foreboding despite its having been written in 2002. The video’s final scene is the female creator of the robot Kismet, Cynthia Breazeal saying to it: “So how is your day goin’? … Maybe you’ll play with your yellow toy?”
Reich’s lightweight approach to heavyweight matters, in toto, reflects keenly — especially now — on matters that once again conjure dark clouds on our horizon.