Almost exactly a month ago, Nonesuch released Radio Rewrite, their latest recording of the music of Steve Reich. The title refers to the first recording of a piece that Reich composed in 2012, commissioned for and recorded by Alarm Will Sound. The title is a slightly cryptic reference to the fact that the composition involves a reconception of two Radiohead songs, “Everything in Its Right Place” and “Jigsaw Falling into Place,” for an ensemble of non-rock instruments. The performance of “Radio Rewrite” is preceded by solo performances of two of Reich’s “counterpoint” compositions, “Electric Counterpoint,” for electric guitar played by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood and “Piano Counterpoint” played by Vicky Chow, a member of the Bang on a Can All-Stars.
I first became aware of Reich through the score for “Reed Phase,” which appeared in the third issue of Source: Music of the Avant-Garde, published in 1968. His approach to phase-shifting fascinated me and turned out to be an excellent test of the expressiveness of my EUTERPE programming language, which provided the ground-work for my doctoral research. Indeed, having experimented with an all-electronic realization of “Reed Phase,” I then used the idea for my own “Variations on a Theme of Steve Reich.”
Beyond such experiments in abstraction, however, I always felt myself most fortunate to have had a generous number of opportunities to listen to Reich’s music performed in concert by ensembles of varying sizes both with and without the addition of tape tracks. This included listening to a solo recital by clarinetist Richard Stoltzman playing “New York Counterpoint” against recordings of his performances of the other contrapuntal voices. The real treat, however, came when I listened to Ransom Wilson assemble his flute students to play “Vermont Counterpoint” without any recorded tracks.
Many years later I happened to mention this experience to David Tanenbaum, who had recorded a performance of “Electric Counterpoint” played on acoustic guitar for New Albion Records on an album entitled Acoustic Counterpoint. This clearly registered with Tanenbaum; and, in January of 2013, he assembled his guitar students for a “live” performance of “Electric Counterpoint” as the grand finale for an all-Reich concert arranged by the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players. The performance was so successful that it was repeated the following April in a recital in the Tangents Guitar Series.
I tell all these stories as a personal disclaimer of a strongly-held opinion, which is that there is no substitute for listening to Reich in concert. The composer has experimented in many creative ways with different approaches to electronic technology. Nevertheless, what he creates always comes down to the in-the-moment excitement of making music, even if it involves a single musician jamming against a multiplicity of tape tracks.
For this reason it has been difficult for me to work up very much enthusiasm for this new Nonesuch recording, particularly since it involves a composition that I have come to love through concert performance. The recording certainly gives a far-more-than-satisfactory account of the ideas behind all three of these compositions. However, the ideas are not the music. The music resides in the acts of making by the performing artists; and, in this particular case, the process of recording seems to have sterilized the life out of those acts.