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New Sounds Live

Winter Garden

On October 15 and 16, Ensemble Signal will perform the music of legendary composer Steve Reich for the annual music series curated by WNYC‘s John Schaefer. The first night starts with John Schaefer in conversation with Steve Reich and features Ensemble Signal & Brad Lubman, Music Director, performing Reich’s masterpiece Music for 18 Musicians. The second night features Piano Phase, My Name Is, Four Organs, and New York Counterpoint.

Described by The New York Times as “one of the most vital groups of its kind,” Ensemble Signal is a NY-based group dedicated to offering the broadest possible audience access to a diverse range of contemporary works through performance, commissioning, recording, and education. Founded by Co-Artistic Directors Lauren Radnofsky and Brad Lubman, Ensemble Signal’s repertoire ranges from minimalism and pop-influenced works to the iconoclastic European avant-garde. They have also established themselves as one of the leading champions and interpreters of Reich’s oeuvre. Since Signal’s 2008 debut performing Reich’s Daniel Variations, Signal has added to its repertoire over 20 works by Reich and has given over 150 performances of his work.

Activated year-round with cultural, arts, and performance-based events, Brookfield Place is one of New York City’s most iconic and celebrated destinations. New Sounds Live began their adventurous, contemporary music series at the former World Financial Center in 1997 and has continued to present performances each fall at what is now Brookfield Place.

October 15:
Music for 18 Musicians (1974-1976)

October 16:
My Name Is (1967)
Piano Phase (1967)
Four Organs (1970)
New York Counterpoint (1985)

Admission is free and open to the public; no tickets needed.

Image by Stephanie Berger




Music for 18 Musicians

The first sketches for Music for 18 Musicians were made in May 1974 and it was completed in March 1976. Although its steady pulse and rhythmic energy relate to many of my earlier works, its instrumentation, harmony and structure are new.

As to instrumentation, Music for 18 Musicians is new in the number and distribution of instruments; violin, cello, two clarinets doubling bass clarinet, four women’s voices, four pianos, three marimbas, two xylophones and vibraphone (with no motor). All instruments are acoustic. The use of electronics is limited to microphones for the voices and some of the instruments.

There is more harmonic movement in the first five minutes of Music for 18 Musicians than in any other complete work of mine to date. Though the movement from chord to chord is often just a re-voicing, inversion, or relative minor or major of a previous chord, usually staying within the key signature of three sharps at all times, nevertheless, within these limits harmonic movement plays a more important role in this piece than in any other I have written.

Rhythmically there are two basically different kinds of time occurring simultaneously in Music for 18 Musicians. The first is that of a regular rhythmic pulse in the pianos and mallet instruments that continues throughout the piece. The second is the rhythm of the human breath in the voices and wind instruments. The entire opening and closing sections plus part of all sections in between contain pulses by the voices and winds. They take a full breath and sing or play pulses of particular notes for as long as their breath will comfortably sustain them. The breath is the measure of the duration of their pulsing. This combination of one breath after another gradually washing up like waves against the constant rhythm of the pianos and mallet instruments is something I have not heard before and would like to investigate further.

The structure of Music for 18 Musicians is based on a cycle of eleven chords played at the very beginning of the piece and repeated at the end. All the instruments and voices play or sing pulsing notes within each chord. Instruments (like the strings) which do not have to breathe nevertheless follow the rise and fall of the breath by following the breath patterns of the bass clarinet. Each chord is held for the duration of two breaths, and the next chord is gradually introduced, and so on, until all eleven are played and the ensemble returns to the first chord. This first pulsing chord is then maintained by two pianos and two marimbas. While this pulsing chord is held for about five minutes a small piece is constructed on it. When this piece is completed there is a sudden change to the second chord, and a second small piece or section is constructed. This means that each chord that might have taken fifteen or twenty seconds to play in the opening section is then stretched out as the basic pulsing harmony for a five minute piece very much as a single note in a cantus firmus, or chant melody of 12th century organum by Perotin might be stretched out for several minutes as the harmonic center for a section of the organum. The opening eleven-chord cycle of Music for 18 Musicians is a kind of pulsing cantus for the entire piece.

On each pulsing chord, one, or, on the third chord, two small pieces are built. These pieces or sections are basically either in the form of an arch (ABCDCBA), or in the form of a musical process, like that of substituting beats for rests, working itself out from beginning to end. Elements appearing in one section will appear in another but surrounded by different harmony and instrumentation. For instance the pulse in pianos and marimbas in sections I and II changes to marimbas and xylophone in section IIIA, and to xylophones and maracas in sections VI and VII. The low piano pulsing harmonies of section IIIA reappear in section VI supporting a different melody played by different instruments. The process of building up a canon, or phase relation, between two xylophones and two pianos which first occurs in section II, occurs again in section IX but building up to another overall pattern in a different harmonic context. The relationship between the different sections is thus best understood in terms of resemblances between members of a family. Certain characteristics will be shared but others will be unique.

One of the basic means of change or development in many sections of this piece is to be found in the rhythmic relationship of harmony to melody. Specifically, a melodic pattern may be repeated over and over again, but by introducing a two or four chord cadence underneath it, first beginning on one beat of the pattern, and then beginning on a different beat, a sense of changing accent in the melody will be heard. This play of changing harmonic rhythm against constant melodic pattern is one of the basic techniques of this piece, and one I have never used before. Its effect, by change of accent, is to vary that which is in fact unchanging.

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Four Organs (1970)

Four Organs is composed exclusively of the gradual augmentation (lengthening) of individual tones within a single (dominant 11th) chord. The tones within the chord gradually extend out like a sort of horizontal bar graph in time. As the chord stretches out, slowly resolving to the tonic A and then gradually changing back to the dominant E, a sort of slow-motion music is created. The maracas lay down a steady time grid of even eighth-notes throughout, enabling the performers to play together while mentally counting up to as much as 256 beats on a given cycle of sustained tones.

Four Organs is the only piece I am aware of that is composed exclusively of the gradual augmentation of individual tones within a single chord. From the beginning to the end there are no changes of pitch or timbre; all changes are rhythmic and simply consist of gradually increasing durations. This process of augmentation was suggested by the enormous elongation of individual tenor notes in Organum as composed by Perotin and others in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in Paris at Notre Dame Cathedral. Tenor notes that in the original chant may have been equivalent to our quarter- or half-notes can take several pages of tied whole-notes when augmented by Perotin or Leonin.

Four Organs was composed in January 1970. It was first performed at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City by myself and members of my own ensemble later that same year. It also turned out to be one of my first pieces to be heard by a large concert-going public when Michael Tilson Thomas invited me to perform it with him and members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Boston in 1971 and at Carnegie Hall in 1973, where it provoked a riot.

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Piano Phase (1967)

Shortly after completing Come Out I began to think about writing live instrumental music. Unfortunately, it seemed to me at the time impossible for two human beings to perform that gradual phase-shifting process since the process was discovered with, and seemed indigenous to, tape recorders. On the other hand I could think of nothing else to do with live musicians that would be as interesting as the phasing process. Finally, late in 1966, I recorded a short repeating melodic pattern played on the piano, made a tape loop of it, and then tried to play against that loop myself, exactly as if I were a second tape recorder. To my surprise, I found that while I lacked the perfection of the machine, I could give a good approximation of it while enjoying a new and extremely satisfying way of playing that was both completely worked out beforehand and yet free of reading notation, allowing me to become completely absorbed in listening while I played.

Piano Phase was later completely written out in musical notation with dotted lines between one bar and the next to indicate the gradual phase shifting. The score shows that two musicians begin in unison playing the same pattern over and over again and that while one of them stays put, the other gradually increases his or her tempo so as to slowly move one beat ahead of the other. This process is repeated until both players are back in unison, at which point the pattern is changed and the phasing process begins again. Everything is worked out, there is no improvisation, but the psychology of performance, what really happens when you play, is total involvement with the sound, total sensuous intellectual involvement.

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New York Counterpoint

New York Counterpoint was commissioned by the Fromm Music Foundation for clarinetist Richard Stolzman.  It was composed during the summer of 1985.  The piece is a continuation of the ideas found in Vermont Counterpoint (1982), where the soloist plays against a pre-recorded tape of him or her self.  In New York Counterpoint the soloist pre-records ten clarinet and bass clarinet parts and then plays a final 11th part against the tape.  The compositional procedures include several that occur in my earlier music.  The opening pulses ultimately come from the opening of Music for 18 Musicians (1976).  The use of interlocking repeated melodic patterns played by multiples of the same instrument can be found in my earliest works, Piano Phose ( for 2 pianos and 2 marimbas) and Violin Phase (for 4 violins) both from 1967.  In the nature of the patterns, their combination harmonically, and in the faster rate of change, the piece reflects my recent works, particularly Sextet (1985).  New York Counterpoint is in three movements: fast, slow, fast, played one after the other without pause.  The change of tempo is abrupt and in the simple relation of 1:2.  The piece is in the meter 3/2=6/4(=12/8).  As is often the case when I write in this meter, there is an ambiguity between whether one hears measures of 3 groups of 4 eighth notes, or 4 groups of 3 eighth notes.  In the last movement of New York Counterpoint the bass clarinets function to accent first one and then the other of these possibilities while the upper clarinets essentially do not change.  The effect, by change of accent, is to vary the perception of that which in fact is not changing.

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