The games people play

Works reviewed: 
New York Counterpoint (1985), Steve Reich
Buffalo News
Buffalo, NY
Jun 16 2000
Herman Trotter

Some curious eye and mind games were going on during the Amherst Saxophone Quartet's concert-opening performance of Steve Reich's 1985 "New York Counterpoint." Originally written for a live clarinetist playing against a pre-recorded tape of 11 clarinets, Tuesday's performance offered a transcription by the ASQ's Susan Fancher for four saxes and tape.
A tape track in pulsing waves was ultimately answered by the live performers, first in typically Reichian undulating rhythmic patterns, then alternating with clearly demarked melodic germs treated in similar fashion. The rhythmic profile changed periodically but always retained the tape-first, instruments-later pattern of dialogue, eventually rising in intensity to create a rather shrill, treble-dominated texture. For many listeners it was a challenging game to keep track of the deceptive counterpoint of the subtle entrances and exits of the live and taped sounds.

Arguably the most exciting performance of the evening was Reich's 1984 Sextet for amplified keyboards, mallet instruments and percussion. The incessant alternation at the outset of aggressive right hand-left hand chord changes (two pianos, six hands) set the overall tone for this arch form, five movement work. There were intriguing eerie ringing sounds generated by bowing the ends of vibraphone bars and some unesual-textures provided by a pair of synthesizers playing a sort of floating line that seemed a cross between a basso continuo and an ostinato.

Much of the playing was in rhythmic unison, with the concluding movement reaching a peak of intensity that was both hypnotic and infectious. In its wake, however, some of us were left with more admiration for the extraordinary lockstep ensemble of the performers than for the music itself.

Reich's trailblazing 1972 "Clapping Music" was performed by the composer and Craig Bitterman. It's a tour de force of both innovation and execution, but its limited point was made many years ago and, although still rhythmically catchy, it holds little interest the fifth or sixth time around.

The concluding 1995 "City Life" for the June in Buffalo Chamber Orchestra and sampled city sounds, conducted by Bradley Lubman, seemed a disappointment. At this point in the program the fuller, more colorful sound of the chamber orchestra was welcome, but despite the composer's assurance that prerecorded samples of such sounds as voices, car horns, pile drivers, sirens, subway chimes and air brakes would be fed into the musical context by "sampling keyboards," the sounds they produced were largely distorted or unintelligible and lost their effect.

The games people play