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Three Tales
(Hindenburg, Bikini, and Dolly)

Steve Reich, music; Beryl Korot, video
The Steve Reich Ensemble, Synergy Vocals;
Bradley Lubman, conductor

Review by John Shinners
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Three Tales (Hindenburg, Bikini, and Dolly) Steve Reich, music; Beryl Korot, video

CD Number: Nonesuch CD+DVD 79662-2

 

  Ideologues know that mixing music and words can be an incendiary brew. That's why we have chauvinistic national anthems and college fight songs.  But putting music to the service of ideology usually leaves the music with the short end of the baton. Consider all those tuneful works by court composers like Lully or Purcell, damaged by bloviating lyrics lauding second-rate sovereigns. Consider poor Prokofiev's regrettable cantata Zdravitsa or "Hail to Stalin!"

If singing an idea is a gamble, music with spoken words is riskier still. Copland's Lincoln Portrait is probably about as good as this genre can get, but it still comes off, well... corny. Even when the narration is politically innocent — William Walton's Facade, Tobias Picker's The Encantadas — spoken words are an uncomfortable fit with music.  They interrupt the flow. Who older than fourteen wouldn't rather hear Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra without the narration?

Throughout his career, Steve Reich has experimented with melding tape-recorded words into music.  His first widely-known pieces were It's Gonna Rain (1965) and Come Out (1966), both of which used altered recorded speech to create music. Since Tehillim (1982) and The Desert Music (1984) he has regularly written works for singers and orchestra. (There is a splendid 2002 recording of both Tehillim and a chamber version of The Desert Music by Alarm Will Sound and Ossia, on Cantaloupe CA21009.) Unremarkably for someone with an undergraduate degree in philosophy from Cornell, Reich has not dodged addressing larger ideas in his music. It's Gonna Rain, for example, is about the end of the word. The Desert Music sets William Carlos Williams' poetry to music in order to explore humanity's potential either to perfect or destroy itself. City Life (1995) ends with found sounds collected from the first bombing of the World Trade Towers in 1993.

Until Three Tales, his most innovative work mixing music and words was Different Trains (1988).  Here Reich, with the aid of digital sampling, developed the technique of literally mimicking the intonation and rhythm of ordinary speech to create what he calls "speech melodies."  He juxtaposed phrases and their musical copies from recorded interviews with people from his own childhood in the 1940s (as he was shuttled back and forth from New York to Los Angeles between his divorced parents) with the memories of people who, as Jewish children, rode very different trains to concentration camps during the Second World War. Performed by a string quartet multiplied electronically and playing in tandem with the recorded voices, the result is music of enormous compositional complexity and emotional power. Indeed, it is likely to be one of the most enduring chamber works from the twentieth century.

Reich expanded this technique with The Cave (1994), a multimedia piece which used interviews with Jews, Muslims, and Christians to meditate on Abraham's cave, a site sacred to all three religions. Like Three Tales, the piece was a collaboration between Reich and his wife, the video artist Beryl Korot. It was well-received by critics, but compared to Three Tales it is a more static, less contrapuntal piece. On CD, without Korot's images, it is monotonous. The settings of long-winded dialogue drag, held down by the weight of earnest yet didactic explications of the history of Abraham and religious apologetics. Only the tenth section of the work, "The Binding of Isaac," which skillfully mixes spoken commentary and singing, foreshadows what will be perfected in Three Tales.

Three Tales (1998-2002) explores the impact of twentieth-century technology, from the fiery crash of the zeppelin Hindenburg at Lakehurst, New Jersey in 1937, to the testing of atomic bombs over the Bikini Atoll in 1946, to the cloning of "Dolly" the sheep in 1997. It is a cautionary piece, respectful of technology but troubled by our penchant to use it too hastily and thoughtlessly.  (Neither Reich nor Korot fails to acknowledge the irony that their work is heavily dependant on the most advanced musical and video technology.)

Reich has said that their goal in The Cave was "to make a new kind of musical theater based on videotaped documentary sources." He calls Three Tales "video opera."  To me neither description quite captures the depth of what's happening here, which strikes me more like "musical photojournalism" or even a secular cantata.  Korot has edited documentary sources into suggestive fragments which Reich uses to inspire and, in some cases, through digital sampling actually create the music for the piece.  The documentary voices become literal recitatives on which the five-member choir sings commentaries that amount to chorales.  In the last two parts of Three Tales, Reich and Korot counterpose reflections on modern technology to the Book of Genesis as a way to universalize the twentieth-century experience.  Here documentary interviews are punctuated by phrases from the Creation myth flashed on the video screen and rendered into wordless musical motifs by a strict one-syllable-to-one-note rule. (Absent the flashed text, the CD makes this scriptural counterpoint impossible.)

Three Tales has all the signatures of Reich's style: constant, rhythmically syncopated pulses; phased melodies (where one melodic line gradually drifts out of sync); fast allegro-like rhythms played over slower, lower ground rhythms (reminiscent of baroque technique); and musical momentum achieved through regularly shifting tonalities. To these it adds elements characteristic of his music from the last two decades: the use of "found sound" and, especially, speech melody. The work's sound world is the familiar Reich palette: a small ensemble of strings and a large ensemble of percussion (including piano and sampling keyboards) with an emphasis on vibraphones and marimbas.

Hindenburg, which opens the work, is the shortest of the tales; even so, it feels the least integrated. It begins amid images of the burning wreckage of the airship as three tenors sing in canon the phrase "It could not have been a technical matter."  Reich employs phrases from WLS radio reporter Herb Morrison's eye-witness account, which at one point he stretches into a series of aurally unpleasant whines. (He manages to resist using Morrison's famous cry "Oh, the humanity!")   "Nibelung Zeppelin," for orchestra alone, depicts the construction of the Hindenburg.  Metallic percussion hammers in hallmark "Reichian" syncopation over images of men climbing the unfinished skeleton of the zeppelin.  The last section of Hindenburg is the most effective: the three tenors sing a fiendishly complicated close canon on the words "Captain Ernst Lehmann gasped, ‘I couldn't understand it...'"

The second tale, Bikini, is the best proof of the success of Reich and Korot's merging of music and picture.  On CD without images this section lags and feels disjointed.  It seems a bit heavy-handed as we hear the literal tick-tock of a metronome counting down the moments to the atomic blast, though it's unclear what is happening from section to section.  But on the DVD, we see how cleverly Reich and Korot play music, image, and text against each other.  The documentary footage shows the evacuation of the Bikini islanders and the preparations on board abandoned target ships to measure the explosion.  At one point, sheep are literally led to slaughter as they are pinned into cages above deck. On the deck of a gliding battleship Korot superimposes a long building with a low-slung roof that suddenly becomes familiar: an anti-Noah's Ark.  In an invigorating exercise in musical and verbal counterpoint, the screen flashes the Genesis command "Be fruitful and multiply" while three tenors sing excerpts from articles in the New York Times — the century's secular Bible — explaining how the blast will gauge the effects of the explosion "on metal, flesh, air and water." Korot electronically alters the images of the islanders preparing for evacuations, softening their textures so that they remind us of painter Paul Gauguin's idyllic inhabitants of a Polynesian Eden. But against these images the tenors first sing of a mushroom cloud resembling "a giant tree" and then, quoting the account of Paradise in Genesis, sing of "the fruits of the Tree of Knowledge." The accelerated tempos of the sections "On the ships" and "In the air" are contrasted by "The atoll," where slow, elegiac chorales depict the expulsion of the Bikini islanders from their paradise.  Rather like opera or popular song, where reading the lyrics without the music is usually a literary letdown, on paper this might sound clichéd; but musically and visually it is powerful.

Dolly, which Reich calls "a kind of free rondo," is a tour de force—one of the best things he has written.  It is a half-hour-long perpetuum mobile, broken at several points with brief, slower interludes.  As with Different Trains, the spoken phrases Reich chooses to orchestrate here are often so striking that it is hard to decide whether it's the words or the music creating the emotional effect. The zoologist Richard Dawkins, whose book The Selfish Gene is still one of the most resolute celebrations of Darwin's theories, dominates the commentary as a sort of high priest of science.  In one powerfully developed moment, repeated several times in this section, he says, "We, and all other animals, are machines created by our genes."  Reich takes the word "machines" and repeats it at least fifty times against a driving rhythm that mechanizes the music.  A swirl of modern scientists and thinkers — including the late Stephen Jay Gould, James D. Watson, who helped discover DNA, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz (deeply riveting in a short rest where he says "Every creature has a song. . . . What do they say?"), and a talking robot named "Kismet" — counterpoint or complement Dawkins' ideas.  At the end of the piece, the choir sings legal scholar Dame Ruth Deech's words: "Here we are under the Tree again" (in cadences reminiscent of the end of The Desert Music), and over a soft, unresolved chord, Kismet's creator Cynthia Breazeal asks: "You got it all planned out?"

Dolly is a stunning feat. Using interviews with some of the most eminent thinkers in their fields, Korot delivers a coherent summary of Darwin, cloning, and artificial intelligence. But Reich music's literally underscores what we should hear as important. It is his ear that catches the musical potential in language and ideas, his art that so satisfyingly achieves that classical aesthetic ideal to merge "sweetness and light," the didactic and the pleasurable. I come away from it every time moved by the complexity of its musical discourse and its human insight.

For the price of a single CD, Nonesuch provides both a DVD of the music and the video of Three Tales and a CD, with the music alone and absent the first section of Hindenburg.  (The DVD also includes an eight-minute section cut from Hindenburg and an excerpt of conductor Brad Lubman conducting a live performance of Hindenburg.) The DVD can be played either in Dolby or DTS 5.1 surround sound or in Dolby digital stereo.  The CD is in standard digital stereo. Listening to the CD alone is like listening to opera on CD: it's nice but a vital part is missing, and in many regards the piece won't make sense.  (The complete text of Three Tales can be downloaded at www.stevereich.com; it is useful to have in hand the first time through the work since the speakers and singers are not always intelligible.)  The sound is quite good, though it has that slightly processed feel that pieces mixing instruments and digital effects can't seem to conquer.  The CD creates a close acoustic with good separation of the instrumental, vocal, and spoken elements. The DVD's surround-sound puts you right in the middle of the musical ensemble — so much so that you may feel moments of panic, expecting conductor Lubman suddenly to cue you to play something.

Through his use of "speech melody" in Different Trains, The Cave, and now Three Tales, Reich shows us the capacity of digital technology to marry itself to older musical forms in order to generate something new.  But has he succeeded any better than his forbearers in blending music and speech without compromising the music?  To an extent, I think he has. Since speech melody produces melody directly from speech, it certainly feels more natural and less jarring. But Korot's video is the wild card here.  Without it we are apt to lose the train of musical thought; with it, we respond so viscerally to the images that they threaten to overwhelm the music, making it less a partner in the enterprise than a soundtrack. But this has always been the risk when music collaborates with the other arts.

Wagner conceived of opera as a Gesamtkunstwerk or "total art work" — a collective that blended music, poetry, theater, and art into a unity.  Reich and Korot's multimedia collaborations embody this kind of aesthetic synthesis through twenty-first century media. Three Tales is an invigorating and promising start.

 

 

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