“Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms are great, but what about those currently above ground?” Anyone who has ever taken a college course in Western musical history probably had a variation of this question in the back of their minds at one point or another. In the textbooks for these classes, the final chapter would toss out a few names of modern composers to give students an idea of what classical music was like in the era of television and color photography. One of the names you could always count on seeing was Steve Reich, poster boy for 20th century minimalism. Ever since the ‘60s, Reich has grasped at a variety of ideas to help make minimalism more vital in an ongoing era of flea-sized attention spans. Those techniques include phasing patterns, produced either in live duets or by tape loops, and the doubling of ensembles’ size and sound by having them play alongside a recording of themselves.
It was the latter approach that earned Reich a Pulitzer in 2009. “Double Sextet” was commissioned by the contemporary sextet Eighth Blackbird (don’t ask me why the word “eighth” appears in a sextet’s name), and when approached by the ensemble’s management for an original composition, Reich hesitated. Apparently the arrangement of violin, cello, flute, clarinet, piano and vibes didn’t make Reich feel confident in his abilities. As a compromise, Eighth Blackbird agreed to “double-up” by playing against a slightly different prerecording of themselves, thereby capturing the subtle shift that is minimalism’s calling card within a six-piece chamber group.
A year or so after “Double Sextet” was completed, Steve Reich approached the ever-reliable Bang on a Can organization to perform his “rock and roll” composition “2x5”. And since the enormous, nebulous classical music conglomerate that is New York’s Bang on a Can is accustomed to premiering (relatively) radical works from the likes of Glenn Branca, there was no problem finding volunteers to play the doubled-up arrangements for electric guitar, electric bass, pianos, and drums. By playing against a loop of themselves, the quintet became a tentet. Now, in 2010, Nonesuch has released the two compositions as a twofer: Double Sextet/2x5.
Eighth Blackbird’s performance calls to mind Reich’s seminal recording of Music for 18 Musicians back in the ‘70s. Sure, the music is repetitious by nature, but you can feel the players lean into every note, giving each movement a pins-and-needles zest. The fast movements that bookend the work have brief moments where the music is catching its breath before pushing through to finish the marathon. Eighth Blackbird provides a glow every step of the way.
There is no glow to the “rock” ensemble that makes up this edition of Bang on a Can. For starters, “2x5” is a work too similar in theme and sound to follow “Double Sextet”. The ideas of rhythmic shifting are the same, and the instrumentation, with electric guitars transposed an octave up thanks to digital pedals, is tinny and dry. The key modulations and obligatory fast-slow-fast movements can be detected a mile away. Critics of minimalist music accuse the genre of having no emotion. Hearing “2x5” gives that argument credence since Reich and his Bang on a Can clan have managed to make an electric guitar sound so very uninteresting. Even after pressing down on the pitch shifter.
These two pieces back to back amount to about 43 minutes of the same Morse code syncopation, give or take a grace note. If you aren’t careful, both “Double Sextet” and “2x5” will start to melt together in your head, becoming a mental jackhammer in lieu of hypnosis (just the other morning, I unintentionally found myself brushing my teeth to the very pattern of these two pieces). The differences are there, you’re just better off spotting them while wearing your ear buds than playing it as a low-volume backdrop for your chores. Music such as Reich’s pays off when you focus on it as best as you can, and Eighth Blackbird’s performance of “Double Sextet” does just that.