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Music

Steve Reich: Daniel Variations

The acclaimed minimalist composer’s concept piece inspired by slain journalist Daniel Pearl is just as baffling in execution as it is in theory.


Steve Reich

Daniel Variations

Label: Nonesuch
US Release Date: 2008-04-08
UK Release Date: 2008-04-07
Amazon
iTunes

In 2002, Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was kidnapped and eventually beheaded in Pakistan by an Islamic extremist group, enraged at the United States’ failure to meet their militant demands. Surely you remember following the shocking story in the news, or seeing the disturbing photographs: Pearl held captive, grimfaced in a multicolored jacket, handcuffed with a gun pointed at his head. He was once like any other bright thirty-something-year-old American, yet some of his final words (“My name is Daniel Pearl. I’m a Jewish American from Encino, California.”) have now been immortalized in Steve Reich’s fascinating, if not particularly coherent, new composition.

In many music circles, though his early experiments with tape loops are certainly respected, Steve Reich’s name is instantly associated with 1976’s Music for 18 Musicians, often regarded (correctly, I might add) as his masterwork, an utterly gorgeous, trance-inducing exploration of chord cycles and drones. I was only half-joking when I included the recording in a list of “albums not to listen to while driving” alongside The Flaming Lips’ Zaireeka and Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music; it’s labeled a seminal example of the minimalism movement, yet there’s nothing minimal about its hypnotic tendency to simply envelope the listener in pure sound. The influence of Music for 18 Musicians is evident in the numerous renditions on YouTube, or the fact that, while iTunes classifies the work as “classical”, it is often found – and allow me to stereotype here – in the record collections and mp3 players of indie listeners who can’t tell Beethoven from Baroque. This mass appeal can likely be attributed to the fact that, although the piece is of a complex musical nature (endlessly pulsing melodic repetition cycling through eleven chords), it’s also readily accessible to those who wish to ignore any analysis and simply enjoy the sublime piece. By contrast, Reich’s newest lacks this necessary accessibility that first made Reich a household name.

Like much of Steve Reich’s newer work, Daniel Variations is a far cry from the recordings that brought him to fame. For one thing, Reich continues to incorporate choral elements into his music, as he did with You Are in 2006. And like Tehillim & The Desert Music a few years prior, Reich once again involves religious, biblical overtones and elements of his Jewish faith. Commissioned by Daniel Pearl’s father as part of the Pearl Foundation, Daniel Variations features tenor and soprano voices either harmonizing or clashing (depending on your tastes) atop string motifs, clarinets, vibraphones, and endless pounding on four pianos. The piece is presented in four movements: two take their titles from Pearl’s own words – for example, “My Name is Daniel Pearl” is described by Reich as “so emblematic of this remarkable person”, since “names are indicative of character” in Judaism. The others are biblical references from The Book of Daniel. The composer was kind enough to explain his inspiration in the liner notes, yet fails to adequately explain the purpose behind it, resulting in a rather unsatisfying album on every level.

Reich employs a unique method of vocal writing in which the choir repeats the title words in unpredictable cycles, with little emphasis on the actual sentence structure. Problem is, Reich’s vocal writing ranges from awkwardly tuneless (the opening “I Saw A Dream”) to dissonant staccato repetition (“Let the Dream Fall Back on the Dreaded”). But in typical Reich fashion, nothing is random, and the musical structure of the piece is outlined just as faithfully, straight from the source. In Reich’s words: “Daniel Variations has two related harmonic ground plans – one for the first and third movements using four minor dominant chords a minor third apart in E minor, G minor, B-flat minor, and C-sharp minor. The other harmonic plan is for the second and fourth movements using four major dominant chords in the relative major keys, G, B-flat, D-flat, and E.” Whereas Music for 18 Musicians has been embraced by listeners of all musical backgrounds (or lack thereof), Daniel Variations, in all its jarring transitions and complications, seems more suitable to analysis in a music theory class than casual listening. And this is tragic. It’s clearly calculated and unique, but can any enjoyment be derived from it?

But wait, there’s more: the CD release of Daniel Variations also includes a separate 2005 Reich composition, Variations For Vibes, Pianos & Strings. The composition was intended for use by choreographer Akram Khan, with an emphasis on swift, interlocking string patterns. In the liner notes, Reich describes an “accumulation of more melodic and harmonic material as [the variations] move along,” but the repetition is more grating than hypnotic, and in no way comparable to Reich’s memorable vibraphone buildup in Sextet over 20 years ago. In fact, Reich’s description of this piece is honestly more interesting than the piece itself, which, to an untrained ear, could be mistaken for Daniel Variations without vocals.

So, in short, Daniel Variations can be recommended in good conscience to diehard Reich fans only. On the bright side, though, if you actually managed to read the above descriptions, you’re likely one of them. As a new generation of listeners discovers the influence and brilliance of Reich’s classic works, it’s only natural for him to remain a restless creative force into the 21st century; however, it’s disheartening that, other than serving as an ambitious testament to the late Pearl, Daniel Variations merely succeeds in further distancing Reich from the aforementioned casual fans and admirers.

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