minimalism

Steve Reich – Triple Quartet (UK Première) & Different Trains; Conlon Nancarrow – String Quartet

Posted on by 5:4 in Premières | Leave a comment

Back in October, i marked George Crumb’s birthday with a recording of his seminal work Black Angels, given by The Smith Quartet. That performance was part of a concert devoted to American music, and it makes sense to explore the remaining pieces. The concert, which took place at the Cheltenham Music Festival on 11 July 2001, opened with the UK première of Steve Reich‘s Triple Quartet. Even relatively blunt-eyed readers of 5:4 may have noticed the paucity of discussion about minimalism on these pages, and that’s no accident; it’s a generalisation, to be sure, and there are many exceptions, but for the most part minimalism leaves me very cold indeed. Yet despite his more recent compositional catastrophes—the less said about WTC 9/11 the better—Reich’s kind of minimalism impresses more than most.

His Triple Quartet is so named for the way two prerecorded string quartets are superposed upon a live quartet (alternatively, it can be performed by 12 live musicians). The triple idea extends to the work’s structure, being in three movements that adhere to the age-old convention fast-slow-fast. The outer movements are essentially the same idea explored in a slightly different way; a harmonic progression of four minor chords (Bm, Dm, Fm and G?m — Reich calls them “dominant” chords but without conventional tonality that term is meaningless) that underpin rapid rhythmic material. In the first movement, there’s much overlapping of these chords, but the changes become increasingly abrupt, and by the last movement, driven on by the rhythmic writing, these chords fly past very quickly indeed. The slow central movement is much more static, both rhythmically and harmonically, focused on and around the B minor chord alone. Both of the faster movements feature material of a more lyrical nature, with a kind of folk-like plangency, and this comes to the fore in the middle movement, made both more poignant and potent by the abrupt halt in the tempo and the stronger sense of counterpoint. This is what makes the Triple Quartet worth hearing; despite the intensity of this slow episode making the outer movements seem even more ephemeral and arbitrary—a kind of empty energy—the music’s sudden switch to oscillations around a fixed point is rather mesmerising. But make no mistake, the slow movement is most definitely the meat in this sandwich.
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