Steve Reich Double Sextet / 2x5 Review

Album. Released 2010.  

BBC Review

Hit and miss affair from rhythmic minimalist.

Spencer Grady 2010

Of all the original minimalists none is more fascinated by the propelling properties of rhythm as New Yorker Steve Reich. His career has been a lifelong study of tempo and timing – themes located at the very heart of these two arrangements, albeit with varying degrees of success.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning Double Sextet is performed here by contemporary music unit eighth blackbird, who also commissioned the piece. For this composition Reich employs his beloved phasing techniques to generate a procession of dramatic syncopations, engineering a face-off between two duplicate chamber groups, each comprising of flute, clarinet, vibraphone, piano, violin and cello. As the pace of the playing shifts so too does the mood, alternating from anticipatory to frenetic as, all the while, a complex series of sub-melodies vie for attention. Identical instruments spar and interlock, creating the kind of patterns that so captivated Morton Feldman. Beautifully poised throughout, Double Sextet stands as arguably one of Reich’s finest works.

Unfortunately, 2x5 (scored, naturally, for two sets of five musicians) doesn’t quite match up. Reich’s attempt to incorporate rockist strategies and instrumentation (four electric guitars, two pianos, two bass guitars and a couple of drum kits), were clearly determining factors in his selection of the multi-faceted Bang on a Can as his interpreting ensemble, but it’s a ploy that flounders in the face of subtlety, undermining the incremental shifts that buttress Reich’s best moments.

But neither could 2x5 ever be mistaken for a blast of devil-horned bombast. Indeed, what’s blindingly apparent from the get go is the hollowness situated at this music’s core, abandoning the listener to a tinny, cheap dinner party approximation of Rhys Chatham’s kinetic scores for massed electric guitars. Where’s the danger, where’s the sweat? Where, for that matter, is the rock? There’s the occasional six-string filigree that recalls Chatham’s acclaimed Guitar Trio or even Sonic Youth at their most statesmanlike, but for the most part it’s all rather limp. Neither one thing nor the other, 2x5 also suffers from being cast in the shadow of preceding glories.

- - -

Follow the BBC's Album Reviews service on Twitter

Creative Commons Licence This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence. If you choose to use this review on your site please link back to this page.