Keith Jarrett: The Well-Tempered Clavier Book I (ECM New Series 2627/28)

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Keith Jarrett
The Well-Tempered Clavier Book I

Keith Jarrett piano
Concert recording, March 7, 1987
at Troy Saving Bank Music Hall, Troy, New York
Engineer: Tom McKenney
Mastering: Christoph Stickel
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Release date: June 14, 2019

After recording Book I of Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier for ECM on piano in February of 1987, on the 7th of March that same year he performed it live at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall in upstate New York. Throughout this archival recording, we see a side of Jarrett not so much hidden as broken wide open in his life as an improviser. His restraint is poetry in motion, figuring this masterful music with a touch that’s intimately bound to the score. Even in the more dramatic flourishes of the c minor and C-sharp major preludes, there’s a sense that he is submerging any impulse to flourish in a bath of deference.

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In Jarrett’s hands, each pairing of prelude and fugue takes on the very character one presumes it was meant to have: which is to say, standing with resolute individuality as part of an interlocking embrace that cannot be broken apart. Issuing from these portals is a spiritual force that weaves between realms as Jarrett between notes. When he slips from the realm of C into that of D, where the latter’s major dyad feels blessed by a watery hand, he clarifies Bach’s inversions, rendering minor keys as stages for joy and their major counterparts as jumping points for faith.

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Whereas D has its playful veneer, E casts aside all notion of folly and turns even the liveliest fugue into a fierce puzzle of longing. The e-flat prelude is an especially ponderous example of composer and interpreter working in harmony to communicate truth. That said, there’s no Platonic ideal lurking within, but rather a feeling tailored to every listener. If any exuberance is to be found in this phase of the journey, it’s in the e minor fugue, but even there it looks rather than speaks through a filter of tangled intentions. In light of this, the F major prelude’s wider net lets through more than it catches, interested as it is in preserving the terms of its passage. Landfall is suspended until the F-sharp major prelude, wherein Jarrett wears the tenderest of hearts on his muscled sleeve, and pulls out a treasure map in the key of f-sharp minor.

And treasure he does indeed find in G terrain, of which major and minor preludes yield their respective fugal gems. All the while, rewards of the A major prelude have awaited our triumphal return, hoisting up flags and drinks alike in the manner of tribute. Thus, we are primed for the B-flat major prelude, in which Jarrett’s quick-thinking fingers revel in the joy of safety. In closing, the b minor pairing embroiders a dream in waking filament. Its every stepwise turn introduces a new color in the tapestry and tempers the final fugue with intimations of obscurity, morality, and nothingness. The flesh may only whisper, but by now we know the calling of a higher power whose volume—though compressed into a single keyboard—matches that of millions more in aggregate.

Reto Bieri and Meta4: Quasi morendo (ECM New Series 2557)

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Reto Bieri and Meta4
Quasi morendo

Reto Bieri clarinet
Meta4
Antti Tikkanen violin
Minna Pensola violin
Atte Kilpeläinen viola
Tomas Djupsjöbacka violoncello
Recorded November 2016, RSI Studio Zürich
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: May 10, 2019

When clarinetist Reto Bieri made his solo ECM debut with Contrechant, Salvatore Sciarrino’s Let Me Die Before I Wake (1982) was the most memorable piece of that program. Here, its unaccompanied wonders make a welcome reappearance, inciting an altogether different journey through works of Johannes Brahms and Gérard Pesson. Sciarrino’s sense of color is downright prismatic, separating the white light of breath into its constituent spectrum through deft use of multiphonic and overtone techniques. There is a tenderness to this music’s unfolding, the occasional outburst from which feels somehow delicate, as if the materiality of it all were but a blip on the listener’s dreaming radar. Bieri himself would be the first to agree on the enigma of it all: “How the sounds come about in this piece,” he says, “is a mystery even to me.” That air of separation between knowledge and production, catalyst and effect, is at once tangible and immaterial. For while Bieri has total control over the sounds emitted by his clarinet, there’s that same daunting sense of physics found in Heinz Holliger’s 1971 Studie über Mehrklänge for oboe (documented by the composer himself on ECM 1340).

Brahms’s Quintet in b minor, Op. 115, finds Bieri in the dynamic company of the Meta4 String Quartet, themselves making an ECM debut. Written in 1891, after Brahms had already decided to retire from composing yet opened that door again when clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld came knocking, this masterwork is what Roman Brotbeck in this album’s liner essay calls “a swan song.” It is, he goes on to write, “freer, more idyllic, less ‘controlled’ than Brahms’s earlier chamber music, but is in fact one of his most strictly constructed compositions.” The opening Allegro is an exercise in dark exuberance, clarinet playing the role of voice among the voiceless. There is lyricism, robust anatomy, and fortitude of reasoning at work in every thematic shift. The following Adagio sees itself reflected in the opening mirror, tracing memories of younger days with fingers dipped in sunlight, but always returning to a baseline of melancholy resignation. The Andantino seems to cradle the most happiness in these shadows, and somewhat recalls the third movement of Brahms’s First Symphony with its subdued pastoralism. The final movement takes all the self-regard that preceded it and turns it into moving images. Like a cinema that predates its own technology, it flows across the screen of the mind in glorious performance.

Pesson’s Nebenstück (1988), what Brotbeck calls “an estranged instrumentation, or rather arrangement, for clarinet and string quartet of the ballade for piano, Op. 10 No. 4, that Brahms composed in 1854,” takes a decidedly internal approach to homage. With a frailty that rivals even the Sciarrino, it speaks in a shaded and subliminal language while peeling back layers of awareness graspable only behind closed eyes, as if the very sight of things would interrupt its grammar with unnecessary punctuation. A brilliant gesture of continuity in summary of a wonderous recital.

Anja Lechner/Pablo Márquez: Franz Schubert – Die Nacht (ECM New Series 2555)

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Anja Lechner
Pablo Márquez
Franz Schubert: Die Nacht

Anja Lechner violoncello
Pablo Márquez guitar
Recorded November 2016, Spiegelsaal, Residenz Eichstätt
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: November 2, 2018

In his book Franz Schubert: Music and Belief, the late Leo Black wrote of the Austrian composer as figure of faith whose image morphed from “carefree minstrel” to “a man sorely tried, living under a horribly oppressive regime, afflicted through his own miscalculation with a horrible disease that was bound to bring an untimely end and make his final years a sojourn in Hell.” In either reduction there is surely a bit of mythology at play, for in the music itself we find a third Schubert: one whose breadth was all of those and so much more.

Although none of us knew Schubert, in the present recording we feel like we did at one time: a childhood friend dangling at the edge of memory and now pulled into the foreground by two musicians who understand his unique ability to, as Wolfgang Sandner phrases it in his liner essay, “poeticise all that is real, to turn reality into a dream and the dream of a better world into reality, all with the means of music.” In this spirit, cellist Anja Lechner has returned to her foundational love of Schubert and, alongside guitarist Pablo Márquez, carves an intimate sigil into the ever-growing tree of interpreters.

The selections herein speak mostly of latter days, during which Schubert was perhaps as much chiseled by creative visions as said visions were by his approach to a score. All lead to the precise yet free-flowing melodies of Nacht und Träume, of which humane touches in both the composing and this performance wind through forest on their way to new experiences. As a beacon among the program’s shorter pieces, it shines inlaid light upon such other standouts as Der Leiermann (The hurdy-gurdy man), in which Lechner evokes the titular instrument with sul ponticello double stops; Fischerweise, which unspools its theme with forthright harmonic drive; and, of course, the album’s title work, in which past and future dreams melt in the crucible of a lively here and now. Further delights abound in the rarer Romanze, an anatomical study written as incidental music for Rosamunde, and the duo’s rendition of the a-minor “Arpeggione” sonata, a relatively optimistic portal in which even the most eruptive moments cling like ink on pages bound by aged leather.

While this would be enough for a robust sequence, through it all are interspersed three nocturnes by Schubert contemporary Friedrich Burgmüller (1806-1874). Originally written for cello and guitar, they stir the proverbial soul while healing its wounds with grace. As the air in different seasons, each takes on its own constellation of fragrances, temperature, and quality of light, shifting from introspection to full gallop and back again.

Die Nacht is one of those special albums that could only have taken place under the guiding hand of ECM. Resting within its compact circle is music of translucent beauty, recorded with a balance of depth and immediacy, by musicians who surrender themselves to every note, and all in the name of a composer whose footprints have plotted their own glowing path along the label’s historical trajectory, as one hopes they will continue to do.

Of Sound Faith: An Interview with Violinist and Educator Ruth Tumpalan

Sing unto him a new song; play skilfully with a loud noise.
For the word of the LORD is right; and all his works are done in truth.
Psalm 33:3-4

Born and raised in Manila, Philippines, violinist Ruth Tumpalan is a dedicated musician and educator. She is currently a faculty member at the Lindeblad School of Music, where her pedagogical zeal has earned her a place of distinction in the hearts of students. She has studied with such renowned classical artists as violinist Christoph Poppen and pianist Gilles Vonsattel, and has performed with a range of others across genres, from Jaime Laredo to Michael Bublé. Most recently, she won first place in the American Protégé International Piano and Strings Composition, and as a result of that honor was a featured soloist at Carnegie’s Weill Recital Hall in New York City. Her focus on cultural diversity is paramount and drives her to constantly improve her technique in all areas.

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Yet behind the glamour of performing on some of the world’s most hallowed stages, Tumpalan has found special fulfillment as part of the music ministry at Heritage Baptist Church in Manhattan. Her love of God and music have been intertwined since childhood, and manifest with especial depth in her work with the church’s choir as part of a vibrant ministry.

I recently sat down with Tumpalan via Skype to discuss the role of faith in her personal and professional life, asking first about her musical foundations.

“My father is a pastor, so we were all homeschooled, but when I was 10 he enrolled me and my siblings in an extension program at the University of the Philippines to study music. Two weeks later, I was playing in a Christian wedding officiated by my father. Since then, I’ve always played in church, both as a violinist and choir pianist.”

At the age of 12, Tumpalan got the chance to visit the United States with her father while he was touring churches. Upon returning home, she immersed herself in recordings and live performances, all the while cultivating a desire to pursue music as a profession. She went on to earn her Bachelor of Music degree at the University of the Philippines, with a focus on violin, graduating cum laude in 2009.

“After college, I played with the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra, but after five years decided I wanted to develop myself even further through study. I had been praying since high school for an opportunity to study abroad, ideally in the U.S., in pursuit of new perspectives and higher standards. In 2014, God led me to a full scholarship to earn a Master’s degree at the University of Massachusetts.”

Tumpalan doesn’t take such blessings lightly and has always seen her gifts as God-given. While at UMass, however, she found herself at an impasse.

“There I was, halfway through my two-year program, contemplating what the Lord’s real will was for me. Did he want me to go back to the Philippines or did he have something bigger in store? It was a long journey, filled with prayer. But God provided, one step at a time, lining me up with a job before I even finished my degree. Although music had originally led me here to the U.S., I know in hindsight that it was actually God’s provision all along, working through all the little things to get me where I am now.”

Although Tumpalan’s husband was in Hong Kong at the time, he also earned a scholarship to study percussion at UMass, bringing them closer under an unseen but ever-felt guiding hand. They were further led to Heritage Baptist Church, where Tumpalan became immediately involved in the music ministry.

“Playing at Heritage is my priority. My job is important, but I like the need of going to church and being with brethren. It also enhances my career, leading me with strength through daily life and its many decisions. When I don’t go to church, even for just a week, I feel that my well-being is lowered.”

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(Tumpalan performs at Heritage Baptist Church)

And what, I asked, of her experience playing at Carnegie?

“I never thought I would get to play there as a soloist. I’d played there before with the Philippine Philharmonic, and thought that was going to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But then, last year, I was working with an excellent pianist named Jongsun Lee, who suggested we try out for the competition. With my full studio schedule, it wasn’t easy to manage practice time and teaching, but my teaching actually helped me to prepare. Certain things my own teachers had taught me before suddenly made sense. I never expected to get first place, but God made it possible.”

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For that performance, she chose Henryk Wieniawski’s formidable Scherzo Tarantelle Op. 16, a work brimming with the very excitement that stokes her appreciation for music as a means of communication.

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“The best feedback I’ve ever gotten as a musician is being told that I moved someone to tears. In that respect, in my playing I aim to be more of an inspiration, to connect with people at a level beyond words.”

This approach is integral to Tumpalan’s teaching, which builds upon the renowned methods of Shinichi Suzuki.

“I always make sure to explain to parents that the Suzuki method was designed to create better human beings through music, and that the most important things to learn from the experience are discipline, empathy, and cooperation. These are more than musical skills; they’re life skills. Without them, playing well and achieving success in music mean nothing. Whenever someone makes a mistake in my group classes, no one is allowed to point. They must respect themselves, first and foremost.”

As for the future, Tumpalan sees herself becoming even more involved in the church, and has been considering putting together a book of Christian music arranged for various instruments. Whatever may come, her faith will only continue to grow.

Praise ye the LORD. Praise God in his sanctuary:
praise him in the firmament of his power.

Praise him for his mighty acts:
praise him according to his excellent greatness.

Praise him with the sound of the trumpet:
praise him with the psaltery and harp.

Praise him with the timbrel and dance:
praise him with stringed instruments and organs.

Praise him upon the loud cymbals:
praise him upon the high sounding cymbals.

Let every thing that hath breath praise the LORD.
Praise ye the LORD.

Psalm 150

Kim Kashkashian: J. S. Bach – Six Suites for Viola Solo (ECM New Series 2553/54)

Six Suites for Viola Solo

Kim Kashkashian
J. S. Bach: Six Suites for Viola Solo

Kim Kashkashian viola
Recorded November 2016 and February 2017 at American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York
Engineer: Judy Sherman
Mastering: Christoph Stickel
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: October 12, 2018

“Living with Bach: a true and faithful companion who patiently provides a merciless and transparent reflection of one’s failings in vision and simultaneously gives the deepest comfort in all circumstances.”
–Kim Kashkashian

If you were to unravel all the blood vessels contained in the average adult, they would stretch to a distance of 100,000 miles. And while the Six Suites of Johann Sebastian Bach (BWV 1007-1012) have always felt like such an unraveling, heard now from the viola of Kim Kashkashian, one becomes aware of that distance in an entirely new way. Whereas on the cello the extent of their totality feels surprising and overwhelming, here it takes an intimate, inevitable quality. In that respect, Kashkashian makes us believe that this music has passed through every molecule of her own body before a single note has tingled from the regard of a microphone.

Kashkashian heats expectation to the consistency of glass, cools it, and shines new light through its resulting prism by starting with Suite II in D minor. At first, one might miss the “depth” of the cello, but what the viola may lack in octave it makes up for with a resolutely vocal quality. With so much emotion at hand, the listener feels inadequate to contain it all. Yet both composer and interpreter assure us of having enough corridors within us to provide passage. In her rendering of the Sarabande especially, Kashkashian hasn’t so much revealed something once hidden by the screens of former performances, but taken the first pictures of this moon’s far side. Indeed, whereas other performers have focused on the face that’s always illuminated—whether by force of history or convention—Kashkashian shines her creative light onto a darker plane that was always there but for so long went unseen.

Only next do we find ourselves swaddled by Suite I in G major. At last, we get those familiar arpeggios, making their appearance all the more savory for their anticipatory marinade. What might normally be experienced as the seed, then, becomes the stalk born from that seed, at last graspable as an object of silent regard, not unlike the bow used to elicit its photosynthesis. Kashkashian shows her greenest spectrum in the Allemande, tracing every life-giving vein from edge to edge. Here, as also in the Courante that follows and the Menuet a skip beyond, she takes her time, allowing rhythms and ornaments to suggest their own variations and appearances.

Anyone missing the cello’s grit will find it dutifully preserved in C-minor Suite V. Between the angular Prélude and the laddering Gavotte, there’s plenty of sediment to be sifted through. The latter movement is a major turning point in that respect, and was for these ears the moment when the viola took on its spirit as a voice to be reckoned with in its own terms. What becomes clearer from this point forward is that everything Kashkashian plays is infused with as much of her being as Bach’s very own.

While “thinking out loud” is a descriptor often reserved for jazz improvisors, throughout Suite IV in E-flat major, Kashkashian shows us that classical musicians at the highest level are equally deserving of the accolade. Whether in every studied pause of the Allemande, masterful bowing of the Courante, or lively restraint of the duple Bourée, she shifts the light to reveal facets that, while forever singing, need a temporary amplifier to become audible.

Suite III, written in the fundamental C major, is a pantheon among temples, and therefore holds itself with a dignity that the other suites can only taste in shadow. Its own Allemande is another master class in syncopation and finds Kashkashian moving as would a linguist through a text so fully clothed in marginalia that, despite not being written in the native tongue, becomes second nature through years of anthropological internalization. So, too, the Courante, which leaps not from the strings but from the bow bidding them to resonate. Neither has the Bourée sounded so connected to its physical means, cracking in the ear like the softest of whips.

Just as the album began with the unexpected, so does it end as it should: with Suite VI in D major. Offering the most arresting Prélude of the collection, the microtonal rocking of which glows phosphorescently in its present handling, the suite is wisdom incarnate. The Sarabande is another manifesto of tenderness rarely so sustained, and delivers us like children into the dawn-drenched Gavotte. And where would we be but lost without its declamatory Gigue. Like its previous five counterparts, it gives us closure in order to hold us true to ourselves and our experiences. As Paul Griffiths in his liner essay notes of these farewells: “Gigues complete the landscape drawn in each key, not by the composer, not by the instrument, not by the performer, but by all three—complete it and leave.” We, however, stay behind, closing our eyes against the grain of what we’ve just heard in full knowledge that no such experience will ever honor us again. And so, we fold every artery, vein, and capillary we can call our own back into the suitcases of our skin, stepping back on the train of life and counting every track as we try to recall what it all felt like before these sounds compelled our detour into peace.

Danish String Quartet: Last Leaf (ECM New Series 2550)

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Danish String Quartet
Last Leaf

Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen violin, harmonium, piano, glockenspiel
Frederik Øland violin
Asbjørn Nørgaard viola
Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin violoncello
Recorded January 2017, The KirstenKjær Museum, Frøstrup
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Mixed June 2017 at Tritonus Studio, Stuttgart, by Rone Tonsgaard Sørensen, Manfred Eicher, and Markus Heiland (engineer)
Produced by the Danish String Quartet
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Release date: September 22, 2017

After an intimately electrifying 2016 ECM debut, the Danish String Quartet follow with this program of original arrangements so well suited to the source material that if their collective heart were a moon, it would be full and bright in the night sky of their creativity. The album’s seed is the Danish Christmas hymn “Now found is the fairest of roses.” First published by poet-theologist H. A. Brorson in 1732, it’s played as if in slow motion and captures the musicians in a film of artful restraint. That the tune concludes rather than begins the sequence is indicative of an underlying philosophy at play, in which stars regress back to their gaseous birth, mere wisps of galactic thought rendered sentient by the incubator of time.

At the other end of the spectrum is “Despair not, o heart.” This Lutheran funeral hymn, first notated in 1517, adds the elegiac cast of a harmonium, and with it the feeling of the open sea unraveled in “Shore.” Written by the quartet’s cellist, Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin, this self-described “folk fantasy” evokes sand and tide while also tracking the footprints left behind and washed away along its canvas. It finds later parallel in Sjölin’s “Naja’s Waltz,” a heartfelt piece of latticework that feels like a gift from father to daughter, and “Intermezzo,”a beautiful segue into “Shine you no more,” by lead violinist Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen. A reel partly inspired by John Dowland’s “Flow My Tears,” it moves kaleidoscopically and jigs its way across the grasslands.

Much of the liminal material at hand is Danish in origin, including the graceful “Minuet No. 60” from a 1760s collection of folk melodies transcribed by Rasmus Storm. Coordinated to the point of feeling untethered by convention, it moves as dancers in their prime. The song “Hur var du i aftes så sildig” (Where were you last night so late), from the same collection, treats pizzicato like a series of semantic puzzle pieces. Other highlights from this geographical focus are “The Dromer,” a so-called English dance collected by the Bast Brothers between 1763-1782, and “Æ Rømeser,” an example of the dance form known as the “sønderhoning,” unique to the southern Danish island village of Sønderho. Slow and sure, but transitioning into a more forthright sway, it grounds the listener as a prerequisite for leaving the earth behind.

Further travels take the quartet from the Swedish traditional “Polska from Dorotea,” attributed to fiddler Johan August Andersson (1866-1902) and filled with luscious interplay from the violin and the Faroese mythology of “Stædelil” to the astonishing sonorities of “Unst Boat Song,” an old Norse song from the Shetland Islands, and “Fastän,” a contemporary Swedish polska by Eva Sæther that ends with a trail of piano.

Regardless of origin, the quartet plays these all with such grace, attention to color, and scenic integrity, that where they’re going is never in question. In their handling, the last leaf becomes the first of another in a cycle of decay and burgeoning life, for which they are humble interpreters. We, in turn, are humbled to witness their unfurling.

Areni Agbabian: Bloom (ECM 2549)

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Areni Agbabian
Bloom

Areni Agbabian voice, piano
Nicolas Stocker percussion
Recorded October 2016, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: April 26, 2019

Patience is more important now…

Bloom marks the ECM debut of a God-given talent. Areni Agbabian, an Armenian American from Los Angeles, is far more than any biographical sketch might seek to define her, if only because her art points to at least two futures for every past in which it is tangled. As a singer, she is equal parts Meredith Monk and Kate Bush, and in that respect embodies the power of wordless improvisation to tell as much of a story as a crafted lyric. As a pianist, she treats keys as seeds and by her touch inspires them to sprout feathers in place of leaves. As a songwriter, she gathers all of these metaphors in a sacred circle, and by that act offers them as prayers to the forces flowing through her. For this album, she is joined by percussionist Nicolas Stocker, whose textural sensibilities open their arms to whatever impulses arise in the studio.

The album’s cycle of life begins in the fullness of adulthood with the bipartite “Patience.” Its combination of muted piano and brushed snare meshes around Agbabian’s sung mantras, which just as soon pivot into unexpected territories with messages written in blood, tenderness, and possibility. She returns occasionally to auras of meaning, but connects them spontaneously to innermost chambers. “A time to be with you as a time to pray,” she intones, and in that call to psychological arms gives us all the shielding we need to fend for ourselves in a world run emotionally dry. As the first drop in a sprinkling of lyric-based pieces—which also includes the astonishingly cinematic “The Water Bride,” a folk tale rendered in spoken word, and “Mother,” an anthem for all humankind—it is an ocean in the making.

More often, Agbabian takes shelter in absence of words. Drawing a thread of continuity through such diverse selections as the traditional Armenian hymn “Anganim Arachi Ko,” the folk melody “Garun a,” and the original “Seeing More,” she traces that string to a mirror, in whose surface it seems to continue on forever into darkness. In each of these songs she takes a pondering look into the truth of the human condition, naked and vulnerable to pain, and by her very acknowledgment opens herself to intimacies of creation. The latter are best expressed in the fully improvised “The River,” in which she and Stocker add grooves of their own to the other’s sonic fingerprints and which yields the percussionist’s solo vision of “Colored,” which also finds a partner in his haunting “Light Effect.”

Agababian’s pianism shines brightest in “Petal One” and “Petal Two,” both of which presage the natural imagery of “Full Bloom,” and in two further pieces, “Rain Drops” and “Whiteness,” born of suggestions made by producer Manfred Eicher in the studio. But despite the album’s title, we know that most of what we hear is only some of what we get. Like the pinecone held before her face in the cover photograph, Agbabian reveals only the corner of a smile and leaves us free to imagine its curve into melodies yet to be gifted.

Steve Reich: The ECM Recordings (ECM 2540-42)

Steve Reich

Steve Reich
The ECM Recordings

Recorded 1976-1981
Release date: September 30, 2016

Steve Reich creates more than music; he renders his sound so systematically as to make it seem organic. Like the frond of a fern or the edge of a tide’s diurnal crawl, it reveals internal order upon inspection, working its fractal splendor at the most intimate of listening levels. At their heart, Reich’s compositions are precisely that: aggregates of base elements working toward a larger conveyance of meaning. Their pulse is their nervous system, insisting on linear paths in a tangle of mortal spirals. But as Paul Griffiths notes in his booklet essay for this essential boxed set, Steve Reich struggled to find a recording home, despite a few standalone releases on other labels, and the fact that by this time he was in his forties and had established himself as a musician and composer of international renown. Part of the problem was how to market it. It wasn’t quite or just classical, but a unique amalgam drawn as much from rock music as West African drumming. And while Deutsche Grammophon had made a recording of Music for 18 Musicians in Paris, it wasn’t until ECM head Manfred Eicher heard it that it saw the light of day. “It spoke to the time,” Griffiths goes on, “and to some extent it still speaks of that time, when the Vietnam War was recently over and in most western countries a social revolution had been accomplished under pressure from below. It speaks of optimism and harmony and drive and progress.”

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Whatever their political, social, or geographic connections, the three albums collected here are as historical in scope as they are in ECM’s preservation. With barest means—the primordial contact of living flesh on dead—Reich and his cadre of dedicated musicians offer a three-dimensional experience unlike any other. And while it’s easy to differentiate the intimate details between each recording, hearing them under a single banner reveals powerful interrelationships and dialogues in service of a growing aesthetic. From the unhidden methodologies of Music for 18 Musicians to the numerological mysteries of Tehillim, one finds a spectrum of emotional receivers flipped on in glorious succession.

Music for 18 Musicians

Music for 18 Musicians (ECM New Series 1129)

Shem Guibbory violin
Ken Ishii cello
Elizabeth Arnold voice
Rebecca Armstrong voice
Pamela Fraley voice
Nurit Tilles piano
Steve Chambers piano
Larry Karush piano, maracas
Gary Schall marimba, maracas
Bob Becker marimba, xylophone
Russ Hartenberger marimba, xylophone
Glen Velez marimba, xylophone
James Preiss metallophone, piano
Steve Reich piano, marimba
David Van Tieghem marimba, xylophone, piano
Virgil Blackwell clarinet, bass clarinet
Richard Cohen clarinet, bass clarinet
Jay Clayton voice, piano
Recorded 1976, Studio des Dames, Paris
Recording engineer: Klaus Hiemann
Mixing: Rudolph Werner, Klaus Hiemann, and Steve Reich
Produced by Rudolph Werner

Music for 18 Musicians makes no efforts to obscure the methods behind its construction. It shows us mysteries never notated. The piece is scored for violin, cello, 2 clarinets doubling bass clarinet, 4 women’s voices, 4 pianos, 3 marimbas, 2 xylophones and metallophone (vibraphone with no motor). With his characteristic attention to detail, Reich utilizes these instruments not necessarily for their evocativeness, but for the varied ways in which their timbres can be blended in a nearly hour-long wash of sound. Movements herein are at once linear and multidirectional. Reich’s notecraft commits to its own agenda while grafting on to many others along the way.

It all begins with a living metronome of piano and mallet instruments before a chorus of breaths (via throat and woodwinds) convenes. The interweaving of these strands reinforces the compositional density, like marrow and nerves attaching themselves to a spinal c(h)ord of aural design. Indeed, what develops is one active body of which instruments are the genetic code. And while vocal utterances function as extensions of manufactured instruments, they lend fragility to the underlying spirit at hand. They rise and fall, slowly replaced by clarinets as if one and the same.

Sudden changes in rhythm serve to reconfigure our attention to the intervention of the composer’s hand: just as we are being lulled into a sense of perpetuity, akin to a natural cycle studied from afar, we are reminded of listening to a human creation. This awareness invites us to share in its re-creation through the act of listening. Like much of Reich’s music, Music for 18 Musicians is nothing if not accommodating. Rather than patronize or proselytize, it bares its bones. This brackets Music for 18 Musicians off from much of the histrionic art music in vogue at the time of its creation (1974-76).

The recording quality of this album is ideally suited to its subject matter. A sense of “clusteredness” prevails, such that the performers never stray too far from the nexus of their unity, while also providing just enough breathing room (performers’ lung capacities determine the length of sonic pulses throughout) for individual elements to shine. Most of the mixing, as it were, is done live by the musicians themselves, and requires attentiveness on the part of the engineer to highlight that interplay without overpowering the core.

Reich Octet etc

Octet / Music for a Large Ensemble / Violin Phase (ECM New Series 1168)

Russ Hartenberger marimba
Glen Velez marimba
Gary Schall marimba
Richard Schwarz marimba
Bob Becker xylophone
David Van Tieghem xylophone
James Preiss vibraphone
Nurit Tilles piano
Edmund Niemann piano
Larry Karush piano
Steve Reich piano
Jay Clayton voice
Elizabeth Arnold voice
Shem Guibbory violin
Robert Chausow violin
Ruth Siegler viola
Claire Bergmann viola
Chris Finckel cello
Michael Finckel cello
Lewis Paer bass
Judith Sugarman basse
Virgil Blackwell clarinet
Richard Cohen clarinet
Mort Silver flute
Ed Joffe soprano saxophone
Vincent Gnojek soprano saxophones
Douglas Hedwig trumpet
Marshall Farr trumpet
James Hamlin trumpet
James Dooley trumpet
Music for a Large Ensemble / Octet
Recorded February 1980 at Columbia Recording Studios, New York
Recording engineer: Martin Wieland
Violin Phase
Recorded March 1980 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Recording engineer: Martin Wieland
Mixing: Manfred Eicher, Martin Wieland, and Steve Reich
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Have you ever repeated a word over and over again until it loses meaning? Cognitive science calls this “semantic satiation.” Now imagine that someone could do the same thing for instruments and you’ll have a clear idea of the power of a Steve Reich composition. In this selection of three longer examples, we get exactly that: an unraveling of music’s linguistic shapes, transformed from within.

The instruments in Music for a Large Ensemble fit into a vast sequence of aural DNA, as logical as it is mystifying. Every voice is given ample space in a piece that, while densely layered, is as airy and fractally ordered as a puff of windblown dandelion. Strings waver with the unrelenting heat of a desert sun, horns ebb and flow in a brassy wash of equilibrium, and a vibraphone rings out like magic over all. Although the music moves mechanically, its texture is organic. This earthiness is maintained in Violin Phase, which consists of a repeated motif that, as with all of Reich’s “phase” pieces, is knocked just slightly out of alignment by the doubling voice, like two turn signals rhythmically staggering and realigning. This is the most localized of Reich’s phases, clearly rooted in the bluegrass fiddling tradition. The violin grinds like sand, small particles swirling and separating yet holding fast to some invisible predictability. After two such strikingly different pieces, the Octet somehow comes across as the most intimate. The inclusion of wind instruments, in particular the clarinet and flute, adds a crystalline contrast, leading to a glorious and sudden silence.

Albums like this and Music for 18 Musicians will easily make one lose track of time. Both are tessellations in sound, each image shifting through time and space like an Escher print, so that what begins as a diamond ends up a bird in flight. Naturally, the precision required to play Reich’s music is a feat in and of itself. That such a synergistic cast of musicians could arise out of the work of one composer is by all accounts spectacular, and when so lovingly recorded their cumulative effect is heightened. This is music that finds its expansiveness internally, charting the waters of our biological oceans until we come to our beginnings anew.

Tehillim

Tehillm (ECM New Series 1215)

Pamela Wood voice
Cheryl Bensman voice
Rebecca Armstrong voice
Jay Clayton voice
Bob Becker percussion
Russ Hartenberger percussion
Garry Kvistad percussion
Steve Reich percussion
Gary Schall percussion
Glen Velez percussion
Virgil Blackwell clarinet, flute
Mort Silver clarinet, piccolo
Vivian Burdick oboe
Ellen Bardekoff English horn
Edmund Niemann electric organ
Nurit Tilles electric organ
Shem Guibbory violin
Robert Chausow violin
Ruth Siegler viola
Chris Finckel cello
Lewis Paer bass
George Manahan conductor
Recorded October 1981 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Recording engineer: Martin Wieland
Mixing: Manfred Eicher, Martin Wieland, and Steve Reich
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Human languages are contrived, insofar as they have undergone extensive sociopolitical reshaping. In Steve Reich’s Tehillim, however, words take on a self-sustaining feel, deeply rooted in the nutrient-rich soil of the composer’s instrumental configuration, and serve to dictate the flow of a seminal shift in American “minimalism.” Being the first document of this new path in Reich’s personal and professional development, this recording matches an endearing trepidation to every practiced gesture. This music, says Reich, may be “heard as traditional and new at the same time,” as it was both a way for him to explore his Jewish roots while weaving a fresh brand of secularism into the many liturgical threads at his back. At just under 30 minutes, Tehillimis a fleeting unraveling of that very fabric.

Tehillim, meaning “praises” and referring to the Hebrew Book of Psalms from which it borrows its texts, is more than a remarkable work. It is also a work of remarks. The scoring is built around a core of drum and clapping before introducing a female voice doubled by clarinet. This opens into a series of four-part canons against a backdrop of electric organs and maraca. Each melodic line—human and instrumental alike—moves distinctly, unaffected by the trappings of vibrato or other flourishes, as an imitative counterpoint works its way into the smoke of this short-burning votive candle. Part II carries the women’s voices into higher elevations in which the passage of time is marked by a light interplay of drums. Part III is the slowest of the four, ebbing and flowing with a breath’s involuntary precision. Like the most engaging of Gavin Bryars’s ensemble pieces, this section pulses with the quiet splendor of a deep-sea organism. The final part opens our eyes again to sunlight. With the barest assortment of auditory keys, it unlocks just enough doors to usher us into a more personal understanding of exultation. It can be no coincidence, then, that the derivation of the title—Hey, Lamed, Lamed (HLL)—also forms the root for “hallelujah.” And so, when the hallelujahs that close the piece spring up like so much plant life, they seem inevitable. Tehillim is the Tree of Life feeding off itself, bathing in the spores of the Word made flesh.

Despite having turned this triangle around in the inner ear more times than can be counted, I discover something new every time: proof positive that calling it “minimalism” is unfair both to Reich and to the ones among whom he makes these demanding journeys. Thankfully, all we need to join them is a mind prepared to receive every shift of terrain with humility and a body in which to house it.

Eicher Reich
(Photo credit: Deborah Feingold)

Of Arabesques, Peculiar Yet Familiar

On 27 July 2019, Joseph Ricker and Jamie Balmer—a.k.a. Duo Orfeo—graced Stonington, Connecticut’s La Grua Center for the fourth time, presenting European art music of the 19th century arranged for classical and electric guitars. The program’s title, Peculiar Arabesques, is shared also by the duo’s latest album, which deepens a diurnal approach to repertoire. For just as a famous chorale by Robert Schumann, from his Album für die Jugend, opened the concert with a tune that was clearly a product of its era, so did Ricker and Balmer close with Maurice Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte, which by virtue of its watery textures and resplendent final chord comfortably transcended boundaries of time drawn by subsequent listeners.

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Between those two poles of evocation, each an answer to its own question of motivic faith, we encountered a range of geographic and cultural materials. Of these, two selections from Isaac Albéniz’s Suite Española, struck that same balance between past and future, articulated with a fine touch within a circle of intimate regard. The second of these was an emblematic example of the duo’s proprietary blend of freedom and restraint. Five pieces from Reynaldo Hahn’s La Rossignol Éperdu were even more wonderous, weaving strands of recollection through sonic photographs in color schemes that, while faded, retained their complex interrelationships. Two mazurkas by Frédéric Chopin were also highlights, walking a tightrope between sul ponticello and sul tasto phrasings while holding firm to a melodic core.

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Other evocative journeys included Enrique Granados’s Danzas Españolas, in which architectural splendor shared oxygen with quieter pictures of history and Ferdinando Carulli’s Andante varié de Beethoven. During the latter, a woman in the audience sat on the floor to work on her crocheting. In addition to her willingness to meet art with art, it seemed to serve as a metaphor for what all of us were hearing: a spool of filament unraveled and refashioned through a combination of instrument and human touch. And while the difference of guitars was certainly noticeable and appropriately chosen, adding especial vibrancy to the Ravel, it was more so the way in which they were handled that proved them worthy of expression.