Steve Reich’s Double Sextet

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OpusNovus: Fascinating Sounds and Rhythms
Saturday, 9 November 2019 @ 7:30pm
Yong Siew Toh Conservatory, Concert Hall


Contributed by Toh Yan Ee (BMUS1, YST)

Born in 1936, New York, and brought up in both New York and California, Steve Reich is one of America’s most influential composers, spearheading minimalist music alongside La Monte Young, Terry Riley and Philip Glass in the 1960s.

Reich attended Cornell University, majoring in philosophy and minoring in music (1953-1957). He then studied composition privately with Hall Overton before being enrolled into the Juilliard School (1958-1961). He attended Mills College where he was taught by Luciano Berio and Darius Milhaud, and obtained his master’s degree in music (1961-1963).

While initially exploring twelve-tone composition, Reich was more interested in experimenting with the number 12 from the rhythmic point of view than through the pitch material itself. Inspired by the minimalist works of Riley, Reich went on to create phase music, by using simple musical fragments to be played on two individual parts at almost the same tempi, which results in a gradual rhythmic separation of parts with time. He explored this not only in his tape works, namely Come Out and It’s Gonna Rain, where multiple tape loops start playing simultaneously at slightly different tape speed, but also developed this technique further in his acoustic compositions, such as Piano Phase, Pendulum Music, and Clapping Music.

Reich’s music has gained worldwide recognition over the years. Besides being performed by several great orchestras and ensembles such as the New York and Los Angeles philharmonics, London, San Francisco and Boston symphony orchestras, London Sinfonietta, Kronos Quartet, and Ensemble Intercontemporain, many famous choreographers have also set dances to his pieces. His compositional style has had significant impact on composers like John Adams and Louis Andriessen.

Reich’s music is largely characterised by its steady tempo and forward moving rhythms, slow harmonic rhythms, as well as the use of repetitions and canons, providing a static, pulsating effect to his music. His works also explore timbral colours and harmonies of various cultures, such as non-Western and American harmonies.

Double Sextet is written for two identical sextets, each comprising flute, clarinet, vibraphone, piano, violin and cello. Like several of Reich’s previous works which explored the concept of an individual playing over a recorded version of themselves such as Violin Phase (1967), New York Counterpoint (1985) and Grammy-award winning Different Trains (1988), the doubling of an entire ensemble in Double Sextet serves to produce interlocking between each pair of identical instruments, creating a network of multiple concurrent counterpoints, as well as variety in instrumental colours. This work can be performed either with two sextets, or a single sextet playing against a recorded track.

Double Sextet lasts about 22 minutes, with three movements (Fast – Slow – Fast) each consisting of four sections which are in the keys of D, F, A-flat, and B respectively (including their relative minor keys). The work is largely driven by the rhythmic interlocking between the two pianos and two vibraphones.

One notable trait of Reich’s style, as seen in this work, is the abrupt modulation from one key to the next which clearly defines a shift towards a new section. The piece is also characterised by heavy use of chromaticism, harmonic dissonances and syncopations.

Double Sextet was written in 2007, commissioned by American sextet eighth blackbird and premiered on 26 March 2008. This piece earned Reich his first Pulitzer Prize in 2009.

Categories Compositions

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