Reich and the Kronos Quartet: A Fruitful Partnership

United StatesUnited States  Reich: Kronos Quartet (David Harrington, John Sherba, violins Hank Dutt, viola; Jeffrey Ziegler, cello), presented by Cal Performances, Hertz Hall, University of California at Berkeley. 10.9.2011 (HS)

The composer Steve Reich, who just turned 75 on October 3, has enjoyed a long and fruitful collaboration with the Kronos Quartet. Their concert Sunday evening at Hertz Hall in Berkeley put Reich’s music on display in a rich and rewarding performance by the artists it was written for.

That partnership clicked from the very first commission, Different Trains, which brought together Reich’s penchant for weaving music from snippets of taped speech, coupled with the quartet’s well-established preference for modern music that raises the excitement level in part through the use of amplification and stage lighting. The other works on the program, including WTC 9/11, which the quartet debuted earlier this year in a concert at Duke University in North Carolina, all owe something to that first collaboration. In them Reich seems to stretch his minimalist tendencies into richer counterpoint.

That was apparent in the opening Triple Quartet, which can be played by three string quartets or, as the Kronos does it, simply by overlaying a live performance of the lead quartet over their own recordings of two and three. It’s lively, bristling with contrapuntal gestures that play against the composer’s signature chugging rhythms and jagged chordal utterances. As abstract music, in this program it laid a foundation of Reich’s tonal musical language that the later works built upon.

Next came three short excerpts from The Cave, Reich’s 1993 collaboration with the video artist Beryl Korot. It went by very quickly, so fast that the members of the quartet didn’t even stand for a bow before launching into WTC 9/11. Written for the 10th anniversary year of the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, it melds audio clips with music that springs from the cadences and inflections of those speaking. Reich has also said WTC refers to Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, and his use of rich counterpoint certainly honors that connection.

The first movement uses air traffic and fire department radio transmissions to inspire music that chillingly depicts the fear and panic of those first hours. Softening a bit, the second movement uses reminiscences by New York friends of Reich describing what they were doing on that day. The finale turns to full mourning, interweaving those memories with the music of a Jewish cantor (doubled beautifully by the cello) singing prayers in Hebrew for those sitting with the dead.

The terse work, barely 15 minutes, packs a wallop, but it suffers in comparison to Different Trains. Both pieces strive to bring musical relevance to a larger horror and use many of the same techniques — not only in using voice snippets of survivors and witnesses, but in overlaying the live quartet with prerecorded music for greater impact. The earlier work has a power and freshness, and takes the time to build gradually and inexorably to ferocious climaxes.

Also, the train metaphor adds extra layers of texture, both formal and musical. The “different trains” of the title refer to contrasts: nostalgic reminiscences of Reich as a boy and his family riding a passenger train across the United States, and Holocaust survivors speaking of the cattle cars the Nazis used to deliver Jews to concentration camps. The rhythm of the rail car suffuses the piece, while a violin and viola evoke train whistles.

The Kronos lives for this kind of music, and it delivered a breathtaking performance. After Harrington told a brief story of how the quartet first met Reich (it involved a humorous email and a performance of the composer’s Clapping Music), Kronos concluded with a marvelous encore – Viderunt Omnes, a vivid piece by the 12th-century French composer Pérotin, identified by Reich as one of his prime influences.

Harvey Steiman