by Adam Rothbarth
What constitutes a great performance, or even a successful one, of postmodern music? Tasked with providing interpretations that can be seen by audiences and benefactors alike as intellectually stimulating, historically conscious, and economically sensible, conductors and ensembles are seemingly burdened with the impossible, for as today’s concert experience shows, achieving all three with any reasonable success is an elusive if not impossible achievement.
Within the essence of postmodern music is embedded a struggle with the necessity to toil against the interpretative and compositional standards of the status quo, and simultaneously, a fundamental confusion about how best to accomplish this. After WWII, music exploded into a deluge of responses to the horror of contemporary social life and the increasing domination of industrial reproduction over the arts, causing some to question whether art’s potential to express the contradictions of social life in a meaningful way had finally come to a close. Since the shift from modernism, composers have amplified their jurisdiction over not only the form of the music, but its performance and reception as well. Since Webern’s unprecedented tendency toward using extensive markings in his scores, composers have sought to bestride the aspects of performance bound up with musical logic and interpretation, instead forcing performers to retreat further and further into reactionary pursuits toward autonomy and imagination such as historical reconstructive performance practice (in which one tries to recreate the original objective conditions of a composition and its performance). Ever since Cage transformed the thinking performer by privileging indeterminacy over reason, one must question the relationship between interpretation and formal meaning in the performance of new music.
I often wonder whether minimalism is meant to be interpreted. Because there are no typical forms in serious music today, there is really nothing for the performer to do when it comes to contemplating and communicating how particular pieces either affirm or deviate from the norm. What the performer is communicating, then, is not the degree to which a piece self-critical, but how the piece is unique in itself. Most music today is self-contained, unveiling all of its secrets to the performer immediately through the sheer specificity of its isolated laws. Ben Johnston invented his own tuning system and pitch notation, while Partch created his own instruments. Nancarrow’s keyboard music often transcends the technical ability of the human body, while some performances of Xenakis and Crumb are interpretations only insofar as the performer must interrogate the indeterminate aspects of the score in order to decide what is even being asked of her.
Listening to the London Symphony Orchestra Percussion Ensemble’s new recording of Steve Reich’s percussion works, it is immediately obvious that this album is excellent. The mixing is superb, marimbas jump out with dazzling clarity, the timbres of the pieces of wood are rich and precise. The rhythmic exactitude on all three pieces is staggering, so acutely perfect that it appears as if there are no performers at all, but rather that the instruments are engaged in some sort of mechanical conversation. This, indeed, is a significant aspect of the aesthetic theory of much of Reich’s music: that even the most basic motif, when it reaches the apex of its motoric capability, can be subject to expansive, prismatic regeneration via shifts across different voices. The “thesis” of this record is Reich’s famous “phasing” technique—especially central to Clapping Music and Music for Pieces of Wood—in which rhythmic motifs are shifted temporally between lines, creating a staggering effect. During these moments, a sort of parallax is opened up, inviting the listener to enjoy and, ideally, contemplate the brief, particular colors and timbres that emerge. Through repetition, something “new” becomes possible by way of something static; and yet it is the sense of staticity that remains at the end of the piece, as the ultimate synthesis is the result not of an introduced antithesis or a transformed thesis, but a thesis, shifted. These parallax moments act as the locus for interpretation by performers, who get to mediate the drama and delicacy with which these transitions appear. This isn’t to say that Reich’s music doesn’t require a virtuosic mastery of percussion technique. It does, which is evidenced by the performance of this music not only as concert music, but also as pedagogical exercises in universities and percussion classes across the country. There are, in fact, many small decisions the performer must make in performing something as seemingly simple as Clapping Music. They must account for accents, the space on each hand where the hands meet, the degree of resonance of each clap, the amount of space between the hands both during and in between claps, tempo, dynamic variance, and how the texture of the whole is balanced across each individual line. In that sense there are actually an infinite number of ways the piece can be performed. But what do these decisions mean?
The centerpiece of the album is the half-hour long Sextet, which traverses a kaleidoscopic series of timbres, rhythms, and tempi. The LSO Percussion Ensemble performs it with nuance and commitment. Scored for four percussionists playing across marimbas, vibraphones, bass drums, crotales, sticks, and tam-tams, as well as two keyboardists playing both pianos and synthesizers, the piece offers a sort of magnified take on the style of his earlier Music for 18 Musicians. The tempo shifts between movements are less fluid than in 18 Musicians, creating more jarring shifts as movements close and meters change. The ways Reich plays with rhythm and meter, forcing the attentive rhythmic listener into a prolonged pseudo-caesura in which they are forced to contemplate whether these shifts are meter shifts, hemiolas, or simply aggressive accents, are among the more interesting and unique moments in lateral micro-musical space since Brahms, at least insofar as temporality goes. The episodes in which these rhythmic events enter into conflict with larger temporalities are where the piece comes closest to transcending its limitations.
It is clear from listening to this kind of music that it aims to critique oppressive mechanized reproduction by aesthetically mimicking it, and it is clear from thinking about it that Reich and his cohort sought to find color and meaning within the motoric, repetitive gestures of labor. Its desire to live freely in reified time, communicated with surgical efficiency by the excellent London Symphony Orchestra Percussion Ensemble, points toward the hope for a kind of music that could actually operate on a new plane of temporality. Perhaps if that can be gleaned from this record, it is a success on numerous levels.