Pointed Counterpoints

A decade after their first collaboration, Steve Reich and Kronos Quartet rediscover the art of the ensemble composition

After working on more straightforward, large-scale ensemble pieces throughout the 1970s, Reich began to re-explore the musical possibilities of having a solo performer play against tapes of him- or herself. The resulting "counterpoint" pieces from the 1980s are far more compositionally complex than the phase pieces, with a soloist playing multiple melodies against multiple recorded voices.

It was about this time that Kronos founder and first violinist David Harrington met Reich. "Obviously I'd been aware of Steve's music for a long time," says Harrington. "And then there was a concert that he did in San Francisco, and I remember introducing myself. And at that point he hadn't really thought of writing string quartet music. I remember he sent me a score to Vermont Counterpoint, which is a flute piece, and said that I could make an arrangement of that. But you know, that's not really what I had in mind. And then sometime after that we did an arrangement of Reich's Clapping Music [a piece composed solely for clapping hands] and I wrote him a letter and said that we had just played his first string quartet," recalls the musician with a laugh. "I said I'd really be interested in a new piece. And then he decided to write a quartet piece, and that was Different Trains."

"At first," admits Reich, "I didn't even know what it was going to be. I just knew I was going to have some speaking voices and that the instruments would imitate the sound of speaking. First I thought I would use Bela Bartok's voice. And then I thought to myself, 'Do I really want Bartok's voice in a string quartet I'm going to write?' I said, 'No, that's a little too heavy for me.' So I thought, 'Well, I know what I'll do: I'll get the voice of Ludwig Wittgenstein,' because I'd studied Wittgenstein. But it turned out Wittgenstein never made any recordings -- he was kind of a recluse. So then I thought to myself, 'There must be something closer to home.' And somehow or other, these train trips I took as a child popped into my head, and the fact that they had been done in the late '30s and early '40s, when in Europe Jewish kids like me were taking train trips to Poland. So that's how that came together."

Kronos Quartet: David Harrington (second from right) was "absolutely delighted" that Steve Reich worked  with them again.
Caroline Greyshock
Kronos Quartet: David Harrington (second from right) was "absolutely delighted" that Steve Reich worked with them again.


Yet despite the enormous success of Different Trains in 1988, Reich and Kronos didn't work together again until this year. "Different Trains opened the way for a lot of other works that we've done since then that use electronics or tape," says Harrington. "It really enlarged our scope. But at the same time," he concedes, "it totaled us out. I mean, that piece was very difficult to record -- I think it took nine or ten days. You know, doing the musical figure in the first movement -- deedadadeedada -- over and over and over for about four days can cause severe problems. I went along for six or seven months wondering if it had injured me. So there was that. And then there was the fact that Steve was moving on to the video operas. And it just seemed like it was good to have a break."

But when the time came for Kronos to plan the music for its 25th anniversary season last year, one of the first composers who came to Harrington's mind was Reich. "I was thinking about all of the pieces that had been written for Kronos," remembers Harrington, "and all of the associations we've had with composers over the years. And it occurred to me that one of the major relationships that we had established was with Steve Reich. And so I called him and asked if he'd be interested in writing another piece for Kronos, and he said he'd love to."

Like Different Trains, the three-movement Triple Quartet takes off from Reich's earlier counterpoint pieces, but is built on a much larger scale. Scored for three quartets, the work has Kronos playing one quartet part live against two parts that have been previously recorded. "The Triple Quartet is only the second time I've had an ensemble play against itself," explains Reich. "The first time was Different Trains."

Triple Quartet received its world premiere at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., in May, and was also performed in July at New York's Lincoln Center Festival, where Reich was the featured composer. "Kronos gave the New York premiere of the piece there, and it was a smash," says Reich, sounding almost surprised by the collaborative achievement. "It's a very big piece, you know -- it's really 12 voices. They mixed it and performed it beautifully. It was gorgeous."

"It's a fantastic new piece," agrees Harrington. "And I thought it was a very gutsy thing for him to do, to write another quartet. I mean, a lot of people who know his work well think of Different Trains as maybe his greatest piece -- certainly his most personal piece up to that point. So you know, I wasn't sure what he would say when approached with the idea of writing another quartet. And so I was absolutely delighted that he took that challenge.

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