A full house greeted this 75th birthday tribute to American composer, Steve Reich, by musicians of the Carolina Music Festival at Krankie’s at the Werehouse, Winston-Salem’s eccentric coffee house, wine bar, art gallery and cultural hot spot.

Steve Reich is one of the best known minimalist composers; others include Terry Riley, Philip Glass, John Adams, Louis Andriessen, Henryk Górecki and Arvo Pärt. Minimalism began in the early 1960s in reaction to the often violently dissonant modernist and serialist composers of the mid-20th century. Minimalism (in music) is characterized by the repetitious use of few notes to create varying length musical surfaces which metamorphize by subtly changing just one note at a time or by varying the instrumental fabric. “Melody,” as such, is often absent.

“Minimalism is not based on individual notes but rather on musical patterns…
Classical composers like Beethoven used notes to create a melody, whereas
Minimalist composers… use patterns of notes to create a mood.”

Although many minimalist composers choose short alternating consonant patterns, some have chosen long drone-like textures. The two pieces the Carolina Music Festival chose to present, Vermont Counterpoint and Different Trains use the more usual technique of short groups of separate notes (almost never slurred) of equal length, repeated rapidly in a fixed order and changing subtly to create musical surfaces which combine and return, forming long moments of seemingly suspended time. Both pieces were composed for a live musician or group of musicians and prepared tape. The tape determines the tempo of the music and the length of the work, which, unlike performances of traditional music, will always be the same – spontaneity and improvisation are not features of this type of music.

Vermont Counterpoint (1982) is an exuberant piece for 11 flutes, 10 pre-recorded – and one very-much-alive Lisa Ransom, playing alto flute, C-flute and piccolo. This intriguing and captivating work was commissioned by Ransom Wilson (who is also the player of the 10 layers of recorded flutes), an early laureate of the North Carolina School of the Arts (now University of NCSA) and former faculty member at UNCSA. It was often difficult to know when Ms. Ransom left off playing and the recorded Mr. Wilson began, because the live Ms. Ransom, miked and amplified, was heard through the same speakers that broadcast the prepared tape. One was reminded of Lipstick by Jacob TV which Ms. Ransom introduced us to a year ago, also in Krankie’s (see https://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=826), also a duet for tape and live flute.

Steve Reich was born in 1936 to wealthy Jewish parents. His parents separated and moved to New York and Los Angeles when he was very young and since they shared custody of the 3-year old, he traveled cross-country numerous times with his governess. And therein lies the source of one of Reich’s most well-known works, Different Trains (1988), for string quartet and tape, played by Marjorie Bagley and Jacqui Carrasco, violins, Scott Rawls, viola and Alexander Ezerman, cello.

The voice of the governess is heard on the tape, along with the voices of a Pullman porter and three survivors of World War II concentration camps. Reich also incorporated sounds and whistles collected from American and European trains of the ‘30s and ‘40s. Working with computers and sampling keyboards, he converted vocal sounds to instrumental pitches and combined them with recordings of three other string quartets (playing parts he composed in like fashion) to produce the final tape which is played synchronously and simultaneously while the live string quartet plays yet another part, similarly derived from the vocal inputs of the five human voices.

The vocal texts, printed in the program notes (but almost illegible in the scattered and faint light at Krankie’s) drive the formal organization of Different Trains. The composer posed the rhetorical question, “What if I were born in Europe? I would be riding a different train!” Logically, the first movements refers to Reich’s childhood American travels, the second to train travels during World War II in Europe, where the train whistles morph into sirens, and in some performances this writer has heard, into screams. The third movement refers to “After the War” and captures voices asking whether the war is really over, “Are you sure?” and lamenting the trains of yesteryear… “But today, they’re all gone.” Different Trains earned its composer a Grammy award in 1992 for “best contemporary music work.”

This piece is a haunting and moving musical experience, especially the second movement, but fraught with problems, mostly of an acoustical nature. Combining live musicians with an electronic recording has many opportunities and some pitfalls, the first being balance. Often the tape is played from speakers in close proximity of the live musicians, balanced by a technician so as not to overpower the unmiked live quartet. At Krankie’s, the quartet was amplified (using close-miking) and played through the same speakers as the tape, unfortunately obliterating any difference between the taped quartets and the live quartet.

And it was loud – rock-concert loud! The amplification assaulted the audience! At the end of the concert, I wandered up to the stage and asked to look at one of the musicians’ parts. Although mezzo forte (mf) was the predominant dynamic indication, there were many more nuances, including “fade in” and “fade out,” all completely erased by the loudness of the amplification. And at no moment was there any mezzo forte (half loud) to be heard. Nonetheless, the audience was wildly enthusiastic once they realized the piece was over (it ends abruptly).