A canon traps an art form in amber, preserving it for future generations to discover. The downside is it imparts a sterility to the art form. The art forms become the province of only a select few individuals and stepping foot in that world is intimidating. Classical music faces this reality, as certain composers are left by the way side in programming in favor of higher profile, more popular works, which makes it a challenge for new works by composers to heard. Most classical programming, the sort that fills up concert halls, tends to focus on the work of Romantic composers with a dash of Modernist, Classical, and Baroque pieces thrown in for good measure. Modern works are a hard-sell at times because they lack the emotional connection of more familiar material.
Ensemble Signal and conductor Brad Lubman embodies the best of aspects of Downtown music, a style not beholden to the strictness of traditional classical nor the monetary drive that pushes the pop music engine. Downtown musicians are comfortable playing in any style or genre imaginable, an invigorating trait that imbues anything the group plays with a jolt of lightning such as this recording of two recent works by composer Steve Reich. Double Sextet hales from 2007 and Radio Rewrite dates back to 2012. Ensemble Signal previously recorded Reich’s 1976 piece, Music for 18 Musicians and it was released to enthusiastic reviews.
The legendary American composer turns 80 on October 3 of this year and this recording by Ensemble Signal is just one release to commemorate the composer and his work. Reich is probably best known for his work in the 1960s at The San Francisco Tape Music center along with colleagues and fellow travelers Morton Subtonick, Pauline Oliveros, Terry Riley, and Ramon Sender.
Double Sextet originally featured instrumentalists playing against recordings of themselves, but in the case of the Ensemble Signal recording, there are twelve instrumentalists. Reich won a Pulitzer Prize for this composition back in 2009 and wrote this about it, “By doubling an entire chamber ensemble, one creates the possibility for multiple simultaneous contrapuntal webs of identical instruments.” This gives the piece an added burst of energy, an aspect further enhanced by constant stream of 8th notes created by the two pianos.
The second piece is Radio Rewrite was inspired by two Radiohead songs: “Jigsaw Falling Into Place” and “Everything in Its Right Place”. The group came on Reich’s radar after seeing Johnny Greenwood perform Electric Counterpoint at the Sacrum Profanum festival in Poland. “The piece is a mixture of moments where you will hear Radiohead, but most moments where you won’t,” said Reich in a press release for the recording. Radiohead and Reich seems like a natural pairing, especially in consideration of Johnny Greenwood’s soundtrack work with his minimalist approach. In particular, his work for There Will Be Blood comes to mind. Ensemble Signal is an excellent fit because the musicians are capable of blurring the lines of genre and style, so the blend of Reich and Radiohead feels like the most natural thing in the word.
Classical composer differ from popular musicians in that some of their work from later in life also happens to be some of their best work. That’s less likely with popular musicians in genres that place a strong emphasis on youth and vitality. When an artist reaches a certain age, fans can expect to look forward to an album on which they grasp with more mature themes like mortality, parenting, and marriage. It’s hard to maintain an image of rebelling against the establishment when you in fact are the establishment.
Ensemble Signal makes a strong case for Reich’s continued relevance as well as the strength of his work in this masterful recording of two late-period Reich compositions. Even at nearly 80, the work of Steve Reich, aided by deft, energetic performances by Ensemble Signal, is still a consequential part of the American musical landscape and vocabulary.