LIVE: Signal @ EMPAC at RPI, 3/12/11

You don’t really just listen to a Steve Reich composition. You sink into it. You let it wash over you like a spring rain. You soak it up and absorb it.

Earlier this month, EMPAC at RPI hosted Signal, one of the world’s foremost new music ensembles, and the program was a pair of Reich’s richest, most rewarding works.

His Pulitzer Prize winning composition, “Double Sextet,” kicked off the concert spotlighting Reich’s continued fascination with and exploration of patterns and interlocking rhythms. The 25-minute piece was written – as you might guess from the title – for two six-member ensembles. Seated on stage in mirror image, the 12 players are paired: two violins, two cellos, two flutes, two pianos, two clarinets and two percussionists.

As highly rhythmic lines ricocheted off of one another, moods crosscut between scenes in an instant — basically, quintessential Steve Reich. Under the direction of Brad Lubman, the piece began with the pianos conjuring up a distinctly urban setting with their rapid-fire, uptempo playing. The breezy flutes blew across the musical landscape and the churning city rhythms, the hustle and hub-bub of rush hour. The clarinets were warm and woody. Marimbas shimmered like a summer heatwave. The strings echoed the factory whistle in the distance.

The piece was undeniably insistant, almost relentless, and it chugged and clattered along with power and purpose as the musicians deftly blended modern classical technique with precision and a rock-solid sense of the groove and where it’s going.

Following a brief intermission, Signal – augmented by additional musicians – returned to the stage that was crowded with four pianos, two xylophones, two marimbas, a metallophone (an unplugged vibraphone) and more. Yes, it was “Music for 18 Musicians,” but if anyone was counting, there were actually 20 musicians on the stage. (18 is merely the minimum number of musicians required to perform the piece live, due to extensive doubling of instrumentation.) Four female vocalists brought a very human touch to the pulsing composition, helping to create the structure by singing (and in the case of the clarinets, playing) the pulsing notes for as long as they can hold them. Breath was a crucial element, as the music ebbed and flowed over the out-of-phase pulsing rhythms.

It was a hypnotic, almost intoxicating evening of music. Difficult to intellectualize perhaps, but certainly not difficult to embrace.

Myra Herron’s review at Hudson Sounds
Josh Potter’s review at Metroland

Double Sextet
Music for 18 Musicians

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