Urban activity: buses moving; keypads clicking; bikers cutting off cabs; window washers scaling up a half completed skyscraper; the distant wail of an ambulance siren, and its sudden pitch modulation as it zooms past, carrying a rush of wind and a trail of receipts, wrappers, or the rare leaf; the clang of the subway; cash registers opening, closing, opening; everyone is counting something: time, money, appointments, each other; the whistle of a traffic cop and hundreds of half-heard conversations in the street. The flurry of the city isn't something best described as "beautiful" so much as alive, unstoppable, cruel, and complex.
American composer (and native New Yorker) Steve Reich has been writing the definitive city soundtrack for 40 years. From his early tape pieces "Come Out" and "It's Gonna Rain", to his now classic minimalist works-- though Reich would certainly scoff at the term-- Drumming and Music For 18 Musicians, to more recent works bother greater in scope and somehow conventionally attractive (Tehillim, Different Trains, The Desert Music), he's invented a sound that nails both the intricate detail and speed-ridden blur of some abstract "downtown." Where Philip Glass's music from the 1960s and 70s is vaguely futuristic and precise, Reich's is warm. Where Terry Riley, who never felt a particularly strong allegiance to the minimal aesthetic in the first place, is boundless and organic, Reich is brainy, propulsive, and hardened to the interiors of a metallic landscape. I read someone call him the "greatest living American composer," and though any all-encompassing title is debatable, you'd be hard pressed to find a more fitting example of individualism and stubborn will so often identified with this place.
You Are (Variations). is Reich's first CD of new material since the not altogether warmly received Three Tales (2002). If the composer has suffered complaints from critics of lacking ambition in recent years, he hasn't let that affect his writing: You Are is prime Reich, using choral and orchestral elements similarly to older pieces like Tehillim and The Desert Music, but seeming as rhythmically driven as anything he's done in years. Harmonically, he sticks to majors and relative minors (that is, a minor key that utilizes the same notes as a major one, but starts from a different point in the scale)-- a common Reich device-- thereby blurring the line between different tonalities. He uses a choir to impart text translated from Hasidic mystical verse: "You are wherever your thoughts are", "Explanations come to an end somewhere," and the idea of saying "little and do much". Words are repeated and spread out over great lengths, so the end effect is not one of narrative but of words as purely musical ingredients.
The "variations" in You Are take up most of the CD, but the closing track is Reich's Cello Counterpoint, featuring cellist Maya Beiser (Bang On a Can) overdubbed eight times to create a surprisingly dense string ensemble. As Reich points out in the CD insert, the cello is great because its capable of resonating clearly in a very wide range-- this piece was actually written for a full string octet, but its marked accents and interweaving melodies sound great all performed by one person. There is a slight similarity to Different Trains for string quartet, though Cello Counterpoint is nowhere near as "industrial," sounding more conventional, perhaps less confrontational, yet still unmistakably Reich. As with the You Are tracks, the constant rumble of motion fills up whatever mental space I have to drift away from the music. (Dominique Leone)