by MATTHEW ANDREWS
It is not uncommon to hear classical chamber music performed in a museum, but on first sight it seemed absurdly incongruous to see an audience crammed between two rows of old trains listening to a string quartet play along with set of speakers.
Nevertheless, Portland new music ensemble Third Angle New Music decided to celebrate the composer Steve Reich’s 80th birthday under a massive creaking metal fan between rows of stately locomotive behemoths from another age on a rainy night down at the Oregon Rail Heritage Center on the east end of Portland’s newest bridge, Tillikum Crossing Bridge of the People.
The beauty of Reich’s music is that it is both formally engaging (in the purely musical dimension) and profoundly meaningful (in the extramusical dimension). In their fifteen years playing Steve Reich, Third Angle has become adept at bringing forth all that his music is and signifies, and this unique concert setting made for a profoundly moving experience.
I got grease smudges from a nearby piston rod all over my program as Third Angle began Reich’s Triple Quartet, composed in 1998 and dedicated to the Kronos Quartet, which premiered all three of these quartets. Reich’s starting point for the quartet was the frenetic last movement of Bela Bartók’s fourth string quartet. An exploration of dissonant harmonic ideas, “the piece became considerably more dissonant and expressionistic than expected,” Reich noted, when, during the composition process, he discovered German-Soviet composer Alfred Schnittke’s disturbing string quartets and Bang on a Can cofounder Michael Gordon’s Yo Shakespeare.
Triple Quartet is the only one of his quartets that can be performed without the use of prerecorded tracks — three string quartets can play it live — though it is usually played by a single string quartet playing along with its own overdubbed recordings, which is how Third Angle performed it at the Rail Center.
Whereas the Triple Quartet is “pure” music, the other two quartets are both programmatic, referring to events in the real world. Different Trains, composed in 1988, combines Reich’s memories of his childhood train rides in America with his realization that “had I been in Europe during this period, as a Jew I would have had to ride very different trains.” WTC 9/11 is a dark meditation on themes associated with the 2001 World Trade Center attacks and their aftermath. Both compositions use richly layered pre-recorded backing tracks, which include both overdubbed strings (as in the Triple Quartet) and vocal samples which have been processed, looped, and rearranged, in a manner similar to Reich’s trailblazing mid-1960s tape-loop recordings Come Out and It’s Gonna Rain.
Different Trains and WTC 9/11 are, respectively, the first and the most recent application of another of Reich’s specialized compositional techniques: the manipulation of recorded speech to generate instrumental musical material (a process explored extensively in such works as The Cave and Three Tales). Reich takes the melodies we all generate when we talk — the musical pitches our voices emit irrespective of the words and their meaning — and has the musicians play those tunes on their instruments. Unfretted stringed instruments—such as those which make up the classical string quartet—are ideally suited to such musical transubstantiation. First, the instruments are played with bows, allowing for extremely precise rhythmic articulation. Second, their unfretted fingerboards allow for fine subtleties of intonation; unlike a piano or standard guitar, strings and voices can hit pitches between the notes of a western musical scale. Third, the string quartet’s range roughly corresponds to the ranges of the human voice.
Reich began with recordings of interviews and used sampling keyboards and computers to extract short speech samples and transcribe them into instrumental melodies. For Different Trains, Reich used interviews with his governess and travelling companion Virginia, a retired Pullman porter, and several Holocaust survivors including one from Portland. For WTC 9/11, he used public domain recordings from the September 11, 2001 attacks (the alarmed voices of US military air traffic controllers and New York Fire Department emergency teams), later interviews with his friends and neighbors from around lower Manhattan, and singers reciting psalms for Shmira (a traditional Jewish rite of burial) over the remains of those killed in the attacks.
Something about the use of prerecorded tracks made the music both hauntingly ephemeral and somewhat impersonal; this feeling was amplified by the instrumental interpretation of the recorded speech, which strips away the verbal content and leaves behind something more abstract, almost inhuman—but which, in spite of that or because of it, also creates something universal, sublime, transcendent.
Here’s where the unusual setting started to really feel right. The gritty reality of it made all three pieces much more affecting, the detached realism of the recordings playing off the horror of their subject matter. As the quartet spooled out anguished melodies over dense, complicated canons, disembodied voices bounced off the humongous train cars, crying and whispering and chanting and wailing “quantify them,” “are you sure?” “loaded with people,” “the second plane,” “don’t breathe,” “I knew it wasn’t an accident,” “they’re all gone.” The “off-hook” phone sound in WTC 9/11 was creepy enough, but when the sirens and train whistles in the Different Trains recording started rebounding around the museum while actual trains rumbled past outside, I felt a shiver of uncanny dread tremble up my spine. At the end a woman on the tape was saying “when she stopped singing they said ‘more, more,’ and they applauded.” And then so did we, with gratitude and great enthusiasm.
Third Angle’s next concert brings pianist Susan Smith on November 3-4 at Portland’s Studio 2@NEW , where she will performing new solo works by Portland composer Michael Johanson, Bang On A Can cofounder David Lang, and young Pulitzer Prize finalist Timo Andres.