BIG EARS
Steve Reich: Complete String Quartets

Steve Reich: Complete String Quartets

Performed by Mivos Quartet

The prolific minimalist icon Steve Reich usually builds his music around cycling rhythmic patterns that move independently to provide new insights on motion. So much of his music delivers a kind of aural analog to optical illusions, such as the wagon-wheel effect, a quality that often requires multiple lines spinning at different tempos or slightly out of sync. So it’s not entirely surprising that he’s only written three string quartets, but even with those he’s turned to electronics and tape tracks to help fill out his sonic vision. His first string quartet was the three-movement Different Trains, written in 1988 for Kronos Quartet. It was his first piece to use recorded speech as melodic material, injecting spoken memories from survivors of World War II within shifting, pulsing lines that evoke the churn of the long-distance train rides he took as a child, which could have led him to a much different place (both geographically and historically) if had had been riding the rails in Europe rather than the U.S.

He enlisted Kronos again for his 1999 Triple Quartet, another fast-slow-fast three-movement work which the ensemble documented by playing the score live with two iterations they’d previously recorded. In the first movement interlocking chords are played by two of the quartets, while the third traces out longer melodic lines in canon form between the first violin and viola and the second violin and cello. The canon is used across all three quartets in the subdued second movement, while the concluding section returns to the brisk tempo of the first movement, toggling between keys with much greater velocity.

Reich returned to the Triple Quartet format for his 2010 memorial piece WTC 9/11, which also incorporated taped spoken word: publicly available recordings of NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) and FDNY (New York City Fire Department) on the day of the titular attack, as well interviews with friends and family who lived or worked in lower Manhattan. There are other sonic elements—the sound a phone would make when left off the hook, a cantor singing parts of the Psalms and the Torah—all of which are rigorously enfolded within musical passages, with many of the doubled lines mirroring speech patterns. It remains an extremely harrowing, poignant 15 minutes of sound. Mivos Quartet, clear inheritors of the open-minded, eclectic ethos of Kronos, will perform all three works, including their own multi-tracked recordings for the last two works.

BIG EARS
Knoxville, TN · USA

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