On Record – Ensemble Intercontemporain / George Jackson – Steve Reich: Reich/Richter (Nonesuch)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Reich/Richter was originally written to be performed with German visual artist Gerhard Richter and Corinna Belz’s film Moving Picture (946-3). The film is based on Richter’s book, Patterns, where the author took a photo of one of his abstract paintings and scanned it into a computer. He cut the scan in half, then cut each half in two, and then reversed two of the four resultant quarters into mirror images. This process – ‘divide, mirror, repeat’ – was repeated all the way through from a half to a 4096th.

Belz helpfully described the film in terms of pixels, beginning with two-‘pixel’ stripes, while the music started with a ‘two-sixteenth’ oscillating pattern. The music then shadows the film as it moves to four, eight and sixteen stripes, at which point Reich introduced longer notes, expanding the music in response. As he then describes, the music returns to more rapid movement as the pixel count starts to diminish.

The match of visual artist and composer could hardly be more appropriate, and their resultant work was performed more than one hundred times at The Shed in New York during 2019. This recording, with the Ensemble Intercontemporain under George Jackson, was made in Paris at the Philharmonie.

What’s the music like?

One of Steve Reich’s many endearing qualities as a composer is the ability to take what sounds like a very complicated mathematical process and make it incredibly easy on the ear – and Reich/Richter repeats that trick.

As with the best ‘minimalist’ works it rewards attentive listening greatly, the ear drawing out shorter phrases and colour combinations, which prove to be every bit as vivid as the cover implies. Yet background listening works equally well, the ear and moreover the mind able to appreciate Reich’s hazy, impressionistic shades which recall earlier works such as Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ from 1973. Here, though, it is possible to appreciate Reich’s mastery of writing for wind instruments, incorporating them into the texture.

Unsurprisingly, Reich/Richter works best when experienced in its unbroken span of 37 minutes. There is some busy activity at all times but Reich’s sustained notes really stand out, giving the piece a broad scope that arches almost overhead. The ever-changing texture benefits from the lines afforded to brightly-toned violins, or crisp clarinets, but when these instruments retreat to make up the broad brushed colours in the middle background, a lovely haze ensues. This makes the piece one of Reich’s easiest to listen to, though by the time we get to the third part, Crossfades, the stretching of the notes introduces a notable tension not dissimilar to that experienced in the early Reich piece Four Organs. As the tempo recovers in Ending, the feeling is strangely exhilarating, like a flower opening out again in the sunlight.

Does it all work?

It does, achieving a very interesting blend of movement and stasis. The performance is excellent too, and intriguing that Ensemble Intercontemporain, the Parisian ensemble founded by Pierre Boulez, should now be recording his music! Boulez, it is safe to say, was not a fan of the so-called ‘minimalists’, and it would be fascinating if we could somehow know his thoughts on the recording.

Is it recommended?

Yes, enthusiastically – a compelling listen. The slightly short running time of the album release means that if you’re a Reich completist, it is worth bearing in mind that Nonesuch plan to release a collection of the composer’s complete works in 2023. Now that is definitely something for the diary!

Listen

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You can explore purchase options for this album at the Nonesuch website