There is perhaps no living composer more significant than Steve Reich. His influence on both contemporary classical and popular music is incalculable, having essentially mapped-out the entire spectrum of “minimalist” music while inspiring subgenres as divergent as techno and hip-hop. From early tape loop compositions to the singular ensemble works of the 1970s and the dense orchestral and voice compositions of the 1980s and ’90s, Reich has amassed a body of work both incredibly diverse and instantly recognizable. 2012 marks the composer’s 75th birthday, and he has taken to the road for a handful of live appearances in the U.S.
The tour opened Tuesday evening at the Walt Disney Concert Hall with the West Coast premiere of 2010’s “2×5,” a complete reading of magnum opus “Music For 18 Musicians,” a brilliant re-imagining of “Piano Phase” and a rare performance by Reich himself, clapping along to “Clapping Music.”
Reich and percussionist David Cossin started the performance with the brief, conceptual marvel “Clapping Music.” Using nothing but the hands of the two musicians, a strict phasing pattern was established and two microphones — placed at the front of the stage — projected the cycle of rhythm and timbre. The sound was a bit affected and low-end-heavy for such an austere piece, but the rare sight of Reich in any live capacity was enough to nullify any sonic imperfections.
After Reich departed, Cossin reemerged to perform a thoroughly modern interpretation of “Piano Phase.” Now calling the piece “Video Phase,” Cossin crouched behind a projection screen illuminated by a singular image of himself performing Reich’s piece using two columns of MIDI drum pads. As the video started, Cossin began to play along with the pre-recorded version, slowly moving in eighth-note intervals behind the beat, creating a rich tapestry of new synthetic piano patterns and melodies. The visual was striking and the unique sound of the sampled MIDI piano created a rhythmic ambience that was more Detroit techno than contemporary classical.
The Bang on a Can All-Stars closed the first half of the show with a dynamic interpretation of “2×5.” Using a mirrored ensemble of four electric guitars, two pianos, two drum kits and two electric bass guitars, the group subverted an ominous rhythmic arrangement with discordant chunks of electric guitar. The players communicated with visual cues — a nod of the head or the lifting of a guitar — and together created a tumultuous blend that was equal parts cacophony and melody.
After a brief intermission and re-setting of the stage, Red Fish Blue Fish — a California-based percussion ensemble — worked its way through the marathon-like strains of “Music for 18 Musicians.” The performance was nothing short of transcendent, with each ensemble member taking on a unique and integral set of musical responsibilities. In many ways, watching the live version of the piece felt like taking apart the exterior of an extraordinarily complex machine and witnessing its different gear shifts and machinations for the first time. Each component of the music was rendered with such remarkable endurance and detail that both the compositional brilliance and musical execution seemed to be as one. Reich’s music is nothing without its performers, and the concert setting makes that abundantly clear.