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Steve Reich: Electric Counterpoint, Performance Reviews

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Title : Steve Reich: Electric Counterpoint, Performance Reviews
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Steve Reich: Electric Counterpoint, Performance Reviews

Here is the Wikipedia article. At this point I question the description of Steve Reich and this piece in particular as being "minimalist." His earlier music, such as Drumming, Six Pianos and quite a few other pieces could be characterized as minimal, but his recent music is no more minimal than Mozart or Palestrina--or Philip Glass for that matter.

Electric Counterpoint is his only piece for guitar and while written for electric guitar it has been performed (as Acoustic Counterpoint) on classical guitar as well. It requires no specifically electric guitar techniques or accessories. I want to look at some performances of the piece in various versions and use that as an excuse to talk about how the piece is structured.

First let's have some performances. This is the original with Pat Metheny which was released on the same disc as Different Trains with the Kronos Quartet.

And here is a performance with classical guitar orchestra:

And here is the performance by Mats Bergström:

I'm not sure we need to hear any more? Due to the kind of writing this is, the possibilities of interpretive freedom are pretty limited. Take tempo, for example. In a piece just shy of fifteen minutes in duration these three performances only vary a few seconds from one another.

The Pat Metheny performance is very clean and solid, as is the one by Mats Bergström. Quite similar. I wonder if he made his own multi-tracked backup tape? Boosey and Hawkes offers both the parts and the backup tape (what they call the "performance tape") for rental. Both the Metheny and Bergström performances get a good groove going. The guitar orchestra version is a bit different. It seems a bit tentative and there are timbral differences among the guitars that don't seem to add to the performance.

There is an acoustic version by David Tannenbaum also, but I could only find the slow movement on YouTube.

I am certainly an admirer of the music of Steve Reich and have been ever since I first heard Drumming way back in the late 70s. But I have to say that I don't think this particular piece is aging well. It certainly has its fans as we can see from the many different recordings of it. But honestly, listening to it again, I don't get much from it. It has to be one of the dullest pieces by Steve Reich. Here is the first page of the score:

Click to enlarge
Don't misunderstand, I am aware that this musical style involves enormous amounts of repetition and usually with his music this repetition creates a wonderfully transcendent mood such as in Music for 18 Musicians which has a quite similar opening. But his other music uses different groups of instruments to create a complex timbral fabric that is not present here. There are other factors as well, such as the way the notes are articulated that tend to lead to a certain dullness. Not trying to change anyone's mind here, just my personal impressions of this piece.

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