Brett’s Sound Picks: Steve Reich / Nexus, “Mallet Phase” (2021)

When I listen to the early works of composer Steve Reich, I imagine that I’m a single pitch asked to carry out feats of endurance, steadiness, and synchronization. The composer has me traveling around tape loops, ricocheting off sets of bongos, and thrumming across marimbas in patterns like those multistable M.C. Escher staircases that go up and down simultaneously. I’m often in a 12-beat pattern, asked to repeat just part of a scale, enough to suggest a mood without defining it. 

The parameters constraining my movements are rigid, but I’m not alone: the composer writes for pairs of us, adding a clone of me to the mix. Pairing us creates instant symmetry, a part in stereo. My clone is doing the same as me yet slightly different, lockstep but out of step by a fraction. As I hold steady the clone gradually speeds up, creating a temporary almost-unison that is full of a tension to resolve itself. Our almost-unison eventually morphs into a new rhythmic relationship that reveals new patterns. Did the composer foresee this relationship, or is this resultant sound new to everyone? We’re single pitches, but together we make beautiful composite patterns full of inherent rhythms that are the byproduct of our differences. In this music, your job is to be reliably steady like a machine, but able to bend like a willow: Keep Calm And Groove On.  

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In 1967 Reich composed Piano Phase for two pianos. Reich’s idea for the piece was to see if the tape machine-based “phasing” technique he had devised to create It’s Gonna Rain (1965) and Come Out (1966) could be replicated by live musicians. Instead of one tape machine playing slightly faster than the other to create rhythmic phasing, one musician gradually speeds up to achieve the same effect. Mallet Phase (2016) is a re-orchestration of Piano Phase by Nexus percussionist Gary Kvistad for custom wooden bar and aluminum tube mallet instruments. The timbres are stark, the playing of Kvistad and Russell Hartenberger is effortlessly precise, and the effect is like hearing music distilled to an elemental process. The listening magic of Mallet Phase is conjured just like an Escher staircase as you notice yourself noticing the incremental changes to the sound.  

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