When Steve Reich was a child in the 1940s, his parents separated, one living in California, the other New York. The young Jewish boy rode the rails back and forth across the country to see them.
Meanwhile, in Europe, other Jewish children were riding very different trains, taking them to their death in Nazi concentration camps. Had circumstances been different, Reich, now one of the world’s most revered composers, might have been one of them.
Reich musically portrayed these different fates in his 1988 composition Different Trains, which blended the recorded voices of Holocaust survivors (including one from Portland), the governess who accompanied Reich on those journeys, and a Pullman porter of the time with string quartet music whose rhythms were based on the rhythms of their speech.
This weekend, just days before his October 3 birthday, Portland’s Third Angle New Music performs that work and Reich’s two other string quartets in concerts that celebrate the composer’s 80th birthday, joining a long list of orchestras and ensembles around the world honoring one of America’s most revered musical originals.
If the Jeopardy answer is “Steve Reich,” the proper question might be, “Who is the greatest living composer?”
Beginning in the mid-1960s, along with his erstwhile bandmates Terry Riley (in San Francisco) and Philip Glass (in New York), Reich pioneered the pulsating minimalist music that reached a broader audience than the thorny mid century American modernist composers who’d driven so many listeners from contemporary classical music. Repetitive, tonal, rhythmic, mesmerizing, even trippy, minimalism transformed world music. Its legacy resounds today in dozens of renowned composers — even rockers like Radiohead — film soundtracks, TV commercials, dance scores and more. Contemporary DJs even made a recording of Reich remixes.
But Reich was still more vanguard than venerated when Portland violinist Ron Blessinger, just beginning his first year as music director for Third Angle, programmed the ensemble’s first all-Reich concert in 2001. “He’d gained a lot of traction among musicians but still was not a big name among the general public” like Glass, Blessinger recalls. The music they were playing had previously been performed almost exclusively, from memory, by Reich’s own ensemble, and Blessinger recalls the the composer being “anxious about the music being out of his control.”
“Are the players really into this music?” Reich — perhaps recalling earlier slights by conservative classical musicians and audiences — asked when Blessinger picked the visiting New Yorker up at the Heathman Hotel to coach Third Angle’s performances.
They were, Blessinger assured him, but the musicians were just as nervous. “Reich was the first composer of his stature that we brought here,” Blessinger remembers, and his music posed particular challenges to classical musicians accustomed to playing strictly from a written score. But the piece they were playing was “a groove piece, and classical pianists don’t understand groove in the same way jazz pianists do,” Blessinger says. “You have to lock into the groove, support the groove and ride the groove and not get stuck in a ‘classical’ sense of rhythm.”
On Different Trains, Reich showed Third Angle how to follow the recorded vocal rhythms, which can’t be adequately captured by notation. The composer’s control issues extended to the particular mallets used in that first concert and in other aspects of the performance (including some friction captured by Oregon Public Broadcasting cameras ). When Reich took his usual place at the soundboard to handle the live balancing of sounds, a brief near-shoving match ensued with Blessinger’s brother, a Grammy-winning sound engineer who knew the intricacies of the group’s equipment better than the composer did.
Blessinger was apprehensive, but as the rehearsals continued, “[Reich] started smiling and joking around,” he recalls. “It was so gratifying to see him relax once he saw what we were doing. It felt like we had respected his music. He felt the love.” By the end of that performance, the composer, with tears in his eyes, said this was the way the music was supposed to sound.
Third Angle has performed Reich’s music often since then, including several “Reich-analias” focused exclusively on his music. For this weekend’s 80th birthday celebrations, the group will play all three of Reich’s string quartets, each written in a different decade, including the 1999 Triple Quartet in which the musicians play live over recordings of themselves playing the other two parts. Completed in 2010, WTC 9/11 includes recorded voices of survivors of the September 11 2001 attacks that struck the World Trade Center just blocks from Reich’s Manhattan apartment.
The title of the third quartet, Different Trains, led Blessinger to schedule the concert for the Oregon Rail Heritage Museum. “It’s a chance to add another dimension to this concert,” he explains. “While these engines were in service some of these train trips were happening. Maybe even one of them took Steve to California from New York.”
Third Angle String Quartet performs “Different Trains,” an 80th birthday tribute to Steve Reich, at 7:30 pm Friday September 30 and Saturday October 1 at the Oregon Rail Heritage Center, 2250 SE Water Ave. Tickets are $35 for adults, $30 for seniors over 65, and $10 for students with valid full-time ID and available online or at 503 331 0301. A shorter version of this story appeared earlier on OregonLive.