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Timing is everything: In the early 1960s, 10 years before the renowned new music ensemble Kronos Quartet formed, minimalist composer Steve Reich was studying music at Mills College in Oakland. In the late 1970s, when Kronos was ensemble-in-residence at Mills, Reich was already well established back in his native New York. And in the early 1980s, when Kronos first approached Reich about a commission for the ensemble, the composer had no interest in writing a work for string quartet. Yet it now seems inevitable that these giants in the field of contemporary classical music would eventually work together.
When they did, it was certainly worth the wait. Different Trains, Reich's first quartet, was composed for Kronos in 1988, and is considered by many to be one of Reich's best works, earning him a Grammy for best contemporary composition in 1989. Still, it took another decade before Reich wrote his second string quartet -- and collaborated again with Kronos. The resulting work, Reich's Triple Quartet, receives its West Coast premiere on Sept. 24 and 25 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, in a program that also features premieres by Kayhan Kalhor, Terry Riley, and Osvaldo Golijov.
Like his colleague and contemporary Philip Glass, Steve Reich seems the quintessential New York composer. He's lived in the city for most of his life, and has performed there with the Steve Reich Ensemble for over 30 years. But before Reich made a name for himself in New York, he spent five years in the Bay Area, where the ideas behind his complex, polyrhythmic compositional style first took shape. "It was when I was about ready to be through with my graduate studies at Mills in June of '63," recalls Reich from his Vermont retreat, "that I began working with the S.F. Mime Troupe and did the music for their production of [Alfred Jarry's surrealist play] Ubu Roi. And that was a very, very exciting experience. I felt like I had finally reached an audience I wanted to reach. The people who went to the Mime Troupe were artists and interesting people from all walks of life -- very different from the kind of academically oriented audience we'd get when we'd have a new music concert at Mills or at the 92nd Street Y in New York City."
After graduating from Mills and working briefly at a community music school on Capp Street, Reich formed his first ensemble. "It was, believe it or not, an improvisation ensemble," laughs Reich, who's known for his perfectly timed, exacting compositions. "I proved to myself at that time that improvisation for the likes of me was not going to work."
Yet one of Reich's greatest influences at the time was minimalist guru Terry Riley, who is known for his highly improvisational approach to composition. "Terry and I got very friendly back in 1964, when he was working on In C," explains Reich. "And I had this group of players around, so I said 'Look, I got a bunch of people who you can add to the people you know. And I'd be happy to play in it.' " When difficulties maintaining the piece's momentum arose during rehearsal, Reich, a former drummer, suggested having one of the musicians keep the pulse. "That gave birth to the high C's that are drummed out on the piano."
The "pulse" has always been an important aspect of Reich's compositions, the result of a lifelong interest in percussion that began at age 14. The teenage Reich frequented jazz clubs like Birdland to hear bebop drummers Kenny Clark and Max Roach, and soon formed a jazz band with a high school friend. "He was a better pianist than I was," Reich says, "so I became the drummer." Reich continued to study music while majoring in philosophy at Cornell, and it was there, in a music history course, that he was first introduced to Balinese gamelan and West African drumming. But it was only after studying composition at Juilliard and then at Mills, at a time when atonal art noise ruled the academic music scene, that Reich realized how important this introduction would prove to him.
"I didn't become a composer to be Luciano Berio, or Karlheinz Stockhausen, or John Cage, or anybody like that," he says adamantly. "I became a composer because I loved Stravinsky and I loved Bach and I loved bebop. All of this music shares a rhythmic profile. And where is rhythm and percussion the dominant voice in the orchestra? In Indonesia and Africa."
So in 1970, Reich went to Ghana to study drumming with the Ewe tribe. When he returned to New York, he taught the members of his ensemble the various rhythmic patterns that he'd learned in Africa, which led to his 1971 piece, Drumming. "It was that structure, the polyrhythms superimposed on each other in African drumming, and the different timings of the speeds of the strands of music in gamelan, that really were crucial to confirming what I was doing. I got a kind of big pat on the back that said, 'Yes, what you're doing makes sense.' "
What Reich was doing was what he refers to as "phase" pieces, in which a spoken or musical phrase is looped on a tape and played against itself at varying speeds, moving in and out of sync. Reich says he discovered the phasing process by accident, while working on It's Gonna Rain in 1965. "I had two identical tapes of a Pentecostal preacher, Brother Walter, whom I recorded in San Francisco's Union Square," explains Reich in the liner notes to his 10-CD box set, Works: 1965-1995, released by Nonesuch in 1997. "I was playing with two inexpensive tape recorders -- one mono jack of my stereo headphones plugged into tape recorder A, the other into tape recorder B. And I had intended to make a specific relationship: 'It's gonna' on one loop, against 'rain' on the other. Instead, the two recorders just happened to be lined up in unison, and one of them gradually started to get ahead of the other. When I heard that, I realized it was more interesting than any one particular relationship because it was a process of gradually passing through all the canonic relationships making an entire piece and not just a moment in time."
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."
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.
"It's been really interesting working together in the studio after 10 years," Harrington adds. "Kronos has been through a lot, and Steve has been through a lot. And then we come back after all that time -- and it was a joyful experience."
Kronos Quartet performs Friday, Sept. 24, and Saturday, Sept. 25, at 8 p.m. at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 700 Howard (at Third Street), S.F. Tickets are $11-25; call 415-978-2787.
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