Steve Reich, 71, is among our most celebrated and influential living composers. On Wednesday evening, an appreciative crowd of almost 350 overflowed the confines of NEC's Brown Hall for the first of four concerts over two nights exploring his musical universe. The festival was directed by Stephen Drury, and the composer was in attendance.
"Piano Phase" (1967) was performed by Drury and Yukiko Takagi on belly-to-belly pianos. This composition was Reich's first application of a procedure called phasing, developed using tape recordings, for live performance. In phasing, two identical patterns are played together, then one gradually accelerates. The hypnotic results are surprisingly complex, akin to the "op art" of the era. In this performance, "Piano Phase" scintillated, its surface velocity contrasting with its glacially shifting textures.
"Different Trains" (1988) arose from Reich's memories of 1940s childhood train journeys across the United States, contrasted with his later realization that other children had simultaneously crossed war-torn Europe in very different trains. More documentary than programmatic, the piece features a live string quartet playing with a prerecorded tape of voices, period train sounds, and additional strings. The intricate, repetitive textures, set to chugging rhythms, build upon the melodies inherent in snippets of taped reminiscences from three Holocaust survivors near Reich's age, his former governess, and a retired Pullman Porter. The Borromeo String Quartet did a fine job playing second fiddle to the recording.
The second Wednesday concert, in Jordan Hall, featured two energetic ensembles of NEC students and alumni and drew nearly double the attendance of the first. "Six Pianos" (1973), played by the ensemble [nec] shivaree, expanded on the ideas of "Piano Phase." The added instruments allowed for more complex and engaging elaborations, but the sound of six massed pianos became wearying.
After intermission, the Callithumpian Consort took the stage for Reich's 1976 masterpiece "Music for 18 Musicians," with its instrumentation of violin, cello, two clarinets doubling bass clarinet, four women's voices, four pianos, three marimbas, two xylophones, metallophone, and maracas.
Nearly an hourlong, "Music for 18 Musicians" evolves at a meditative, breath-like pace through pulsating modules of layered riffs and rhythms, with the higher pitched instruments moving rapidly, the lower-pitched more slowly. It evokes a blazing night sky observed to the sound of crickets, then moves beyond that to the mind's imaginative journey through the infinity of space. More than 30 years since its debut, the piece remains fresh.