April 15, 2016
by Patrick Rucker
REICH: Third Coast Percussion: Cedille Records
In artistic matters, labeling anyone “the greatest” almost always boils down to oversimplification or hyperbole. But it is difficult to argue with Kyle Gann, who wrote that Steve Reich “may be considered, by general acclamation, America’s greatest living composer.” Reich turns 80 in October, and the Chicago-based group Third Coast Percussion has devoted its latest recording to works spanning his long career. TCP — Sean Connors, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin and David Skidmore — describe themselves as “second generation” Reich interpreters, meaning that none of them worked with the composer and all of them came of age when his music was already established in the repertory.
The earliest piece, “Music for Pieces of Wood” (1973), represents Reich at his most elemental. Matthew Duvall of Eighth Blackbird joins TCP, and the instruments they choose for this performance are five slats of purpleheart wood, tuned to different pitches, struck with wooden dowels. The ensemble’s rich resonance, combined with the variety of pitches and shifting dynamics, evokes a kaleidoscopic dithyramb of rare power.
Unlike Reich’s extended works that unfold in continuous phases, “Sextet” (1984) has five distinct movements. TCP, along with pianists David Friend and Oliver Hagen, creates the exquisitely enveloping, undulating soundscapes so characteristic of mature Reich with great imagination and finesse. Transitions between movements are imbued with a striking blend of the startling, foreboding and the alluring.
Connors and Martin’s take on the well-known “Nagoya Marimbas” (1994) is very much their own and happily compelling. My favorite performance, though, is of the latest piece, “Mallet Quartet” (2009), which vividly conveys that special Reich sense of several musicians becoming, in an ineffably primal, tribal, mystical way, greater than the sum of their parts. And what’s totally cool is hearing such music realized by another generation of devoted interpreters.