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Steve Reich Three Tales Review

Soundtrack. Released 2003.  

BBC Review

Let's call it a video opera, shall we? A trilogy of technological tales with music by...

Andrew McGregor 2003

Let's call it a video opera, shall we? In fact given the brevity, the invention, the imaginative quality of the images, this is almost MTV-friendly opera, a trilogy of technological tales with music by Steve Reich and video from Beryl Korot. After working together on The Cave in the early 1990s, they were asked to think about a piece on the 20th century. Reich remembers thinking that the 20th century had been more driven by technology than almost any other human endeavour, but that they'd need signposts, specific events from the early, middle and late parts of the century. The explosion of the zeppelin Hindenburg in New Jersey in 1937 was the unforgettable image of a failed technology. The atomic tests at Bikini Atoll take us into the early 50s and the start of the Cold War, while a totally different technology completed the trilogy in 1997, with the cloning of Dolly the sheep.

So there you have it: Hindenburg, Bikini and Dolly - failed conventional technology, the splitting of the atom, and genetic manipulation...but can these pieces work without the images? Not an easy question to answer. Hindenburg is the easiest to accomodate in some ways; if you've seen the footage of that explosion, and the fire ripping through the gas-filled envelope as ant-like passengers and crew fall from the airship and run for cover, you can provide perfectly adequate images to go with Reich's repeated riffs and rhythms, the portentous rumblings and the clips of speech taken from eyewitness accounts that generate some of the musical material. You end up with a sort-of 21st century newsreel plus accompanying soundtrack.

Bikini is different; this isn't straight music theatre reportage. The questions about the destructive technology are more explicit, the clash between the advanced atomic science and the simple Bikini people of the Marshall Islands is underlined by the score.

Finally, Dolly, which paradoxically has the most effective video, yet needs it least. The soundtrack is truly eerie on its own, carrying descriptive comments from an impressive array of commentators and experts on genetic manipulation, as well as a virtual sheep, Dolly herself, who speaks to us in an endearing synthesised voice.

But you don't have to do without the video; this is a two-disc set, the two-channel soundtrack CD, plus the DVD-Video with full 5.1 surround sound, all for the price of a top-end single CD. Very generous, and a gripping package not just for Reich fans, but for anyone who enjoys exploring new approaches to traditional musical and theatrical forms, or finds themselves asking disturbing questions about just where the human race is headed. Reich and Korot can't give you the answer, but they frame the questions more memorably and insistently than most. Fascinating. This should win awards...but in what category?

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