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Raindrops and Clave-Chords

New York
Galapago Art Space, 16 Main Street, Dumbo, Brooklyn
06/22/2011 -  
Steve Reich: Music for Pieces of Wood
David Lang: the so-called laws of nature

Yale Percussion Group: Yun-Chu Chiu, Michael Compitello, John Corkill, Leronardo Gorosito, Ian Rosenbaum, Adam Rosenblatt

Yale Percussion Group & (third from left) D. Lang (© Herring Rollmop)

Philosophers are scarce in music inspirations. Strauss did Nietzsche, Satie did Socrates, Bernstein did Voltaire. (Then again, without any composers at hand, Jean-Jacques Rousseau composed his own opera, and one of the Wittgenstein brothers had enough money to commission the likes of Ravel, Prokofiev and Strauss to write original music. )

Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang, though, was inspired enough by Ludwig (the other Wittgenstein) to compose a work with one of his famous quotes. To wit (or to Witt), “At the basis of the whole modern view of the world lies the illusion that the so-called laws of nature are the explanation of natural phenomena.” This generated a thought process in (then budding scientist) Lang to ask whether music comes out of scientific proportions and formulas or in spite of these patterns.

(I am simplifying, though one poet answered, “Pythagoras alone has seen beauty bare….”)

Lang’s wonderful piece the so-called laws of nature, engendered yet another philosophical problem, since the Yale Percussion Group, for whom he wrote the work and who played it last night does not exist.

Founded in 1997, using percussionists from the Yale Graduate School of Music, the original artists have graduated, sometimes to ensembles like So Percussion, sometimes as orchestral musicians. So the six players last night use the same name but are different corporeal bodies than the original group.

Whew! Enough. Let’s just say that these six are phenomonal, that the 30-plus minutes of their playing was anything but monotonous, and that David Lang, present at Galapagos Art Space, was a very happy man.

In philosophical terms, the music was both logical and positive. Three movements, three different sets of instruments, three different kinds of sounds–and some marvelous surprises as well.

I have no doubt that Mr. Lang could explain the rhythmic bases of music, but for this first-time listener, with no technical program notes, the three movements had their own fascination.. The instruments were hidden behind the pages of music, but, outside of the usual battery of drums, they seemed to be types of marimbas, xylophones and (what could be seen) jars and flowerpots.

The first movement showd repetitions of marimba-style music. Minimalist repetitions, with a few changes… And then, WHAM!–the right hand of the four players played the keyboard, while the other hand whopped and banged the drums. All in different rhythms.

One didn’t have to ask the sound of one hand drumming, the expertise of the players did that.

The second movement was more bell like–and it took me back several decades to the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, where the Cambodian dancers would make the same sounds with a series of bells. It sounded here like hundreds of wind chimes, and the aural patina was charming.

The third movement was a study in pianissimo. The softest, tiniest notes dripping down like endless raindrops, while the rubbing of differently “tuned” powers gave the eeriest most pleasant background sounds.

I don’t want to be non-technical, but this was simply a delight in sound–and the technical processes of duration and rhythms will have to wait for another day.

Steve Reich’s early Study For Pieces of Wood was written in 1973, after he started his study of African music. The instruments were claves (pronounced “clah-vays”), sticks tuned differently played against different fabrics and textures. The simplicity of the feeling was very much like his Clapping Music, where simple rhythms come in, repeat themselves and become tangled with other instruments.

The instruments were African, but the metered variations were transparently gamelan. Each instrument would start with four quarter notes, those would be divided into eighth notes, then these would become more complex, with three quarter-notes and a syncopated eighth- and sixteenth-note , repeating that etc etc, All six of the players beginning and ending at different times, so we had a thick, yet always consonant texture. In Balinese gamelan music, three or four hours are devoted to the same rhythms being divided, the percussion doubling upon one another.

Mr. Reich’s music lasted barely 15 minutes, and not a single second was without its clack-clack allure. One didn’t need Wittgenstein or Socrates or Pythagoras to justify this music. Messrs Reich and Lang obviously have their methods, but simultaneously, these were sounds produced for utmost joy.

Harry Rolnick



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