Monday, May 23, 2022

Early Reich Tape Music Without the Tape

Steve Reich’s earliest “serious” compositions came out of his work here at the San Francisco Tape Music Center. HIs first major work, “It’s Gonna Rain” involved multiple copies of a loop taken from a sermon by a black Pentecostal street-preacher known as Brother Walter that moved in and out of phase with each other. This led to a whole new repertoire of sonorities organized around principles that had little to do with past techniques in music history.

“It’s Gonna Rain” was composed in 1965. By 1967 Reich had begun to shift his attention to phase techniques based on performing instruments, rather than “concrete” tape sources. Yesterday afternoon, at the final concert of the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players (SFCMP) entitled Synergy & Synthesis, the program concluded with one of those 1967 compositions, “Violin Phase.” This involved a “live” violinist (Hrabba Atladottir) performing with three recordings of violin performances of a single pattern subjected to phase shifting.

In 1967 those recordings were made on magnetic tape, which involved serious difficulties where precise timing was concerned. Fortunately, those problems no longer arise thanks to digital technology. As a result, Jeremy Wagner was able to create digital tracks for yesterday’s performance, working at the Center for New Music and Audio Technologies (CNMAT) at the University of California at Berkeley.

What interested Reich most about his technique was the way in which the ear would recognize (synthesize?) patterns that were not in the notation but emerged through the “interference patterns” of phase-shifting. Those patterns resided solely “in the ear of the listener.” Where “Violin Phase” was concerned, the “primary listener” was the violinist. Rather than contributing to the repeated patterns on the tapes, the violinist was instructed to listen to the patterns emerging through interference and then perform repetitions of them. This not only added to the overall “phase texture” but also guided the listener into and through those processes of emergence. Thus, what might initially strike the unfamiliar listener as little more than obsessive repetition turns out to be a diversely variegated “playing field” in which new melodic patterns are discovered and exploited.

Yesterday afternoon was my first opportunity to listen to this music in performance, rather than on recording. Watching Atladottir at work greatly facilitated my awareness of the emergent patterns she would discover and distinguish from the textured patterns of the tape music. The fact is that, when one listens to a recording of “Violin Phase,” separating the violinist from the recorded patterns is no easy matter. However, during yesterday’s performance in the Joe Henderson Lab of the SFJAZZ Center, the eye was capable of sorting out the textures in ways that the ear could not. The result was a journey of discovery that no mere recording could begin to approach.

The other “historical” offering on yesterday’s program was the opening selection. Percussionist William Winant performed Lou Harrison’s “Solo to Anthony Cirone.” This was scored for a metallophone of Harrison’s own design based on the integer ratios of just intonation tuning. One could thus follow not only Winant’s approaches to striking these metallic bars but also the resonances emerging from sympathetic vibrations.

Winant then accompanied tenor Eric Dudley (also SFCMP Artistic Director) in a performance of the three-movement song cycle entitled [where late the sweet] BIRDS SANG. Composer Steed Cowart worked with three texts by Stephen Ratcliffe, each of which involved deconstructing and reassembling strings of words from the sonnets of William Shakespeare. As might be guessed, the strings of words for each song lacked what one might expect in the coherence of semantics. However, between the music itself and Dudley’s deliveries of the text settings, what might be called “dispositional meaning” emerged from his interpretation of each song. That left more than enough for mind to consider both during and after the performance.

The remaining two works on the program were solo performances by Kyle Bruckmann, the first on oboe and the second on cor anglais. The oboe selection was entitled “Arachne,” composed by Helen Grime in 2012. It was a relatively brief piece evocative of the weaving of a web (at least to those that “got” the title). Orlando Jacinto García’s “Separación” was composed in 2001 for cor anglais and electronics. This involve a thickly textured “background” provided by the electronics within which the cor anglais would weave its own path. The title suggests that the music is, among other things, an exercise for the listener in recognizing the separation between the  “physical” instrumental sounds and the “virtual” synthesized ones.

Taken as a whole, the program was true to its title, dealing not only with synthesis but also with the synergies that emerge on the borderline between the physical and the virtual.

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