Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Landmarks (31)

Steve Reich: Drumming (1971) An evening-length work based on the execution of only three rigorous processes (substituting beats for rests (and then vice-versa), phase-shifting, and the doubling of resultant patterns). The piece is essentially repeated three times in succession by complementary ensembles (drums with male voice; marimbas with female voices; glockenspiels with whistling and piccolo), each located in a distinct tessitura, each with a distinct pitch collection, and closes with all three ensembles combined into one.

Drumming's unique achievement is that of working with a technical rigor equal to but altogether external to that favored by the already aged avant garde while simultaneously reaching into the most basic and most immediate impulses in music-making. It's difficult now to recall how much this piece (and others by Reich: Come Out, Piano Phase, Four Organs) shook up the new music world as a concrete demonstration that there were alternative paths to rigor and audible complexity, and that these paths were unconcerned with a large amount of music-cultural baggage. Reich also made it clear in these works that one could engage seriously with musical traditions outside of one's own musical immediate musical heritage without either copying directly from or parodying the substance of those traditions. Further, Drumming, like Riley's In C, (a piece, to the performance practice of which, Reich had made a key contribution) was further evidence that the prevailing spirit of new music making could be at once serious and a cheerful.

In recent years, and with the composer's approval, the practice has established itself of playing the first part of Drumming by itself, and without the vocal doubling of resultant patterns. With my musical moralist's hat on, I'll say that I don't approve of the practice, for Drumming divorced of both its full length and the singing is Drumming reduced to, well, just drumming.

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