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12 Jan

So Percussion Strikes a New Chord with Reich's 'Mallet Quartet'

Joshua Kosman,  Music Critic
San Francisco Chronicle
Monday, January 11, 2010

There may be no better way to consider a new piece by an established composer than in the context of his earlier works. That's especially true when the new music marks a departure as intriguing as Steve Reich's new "Mallet Quartet," which had its U.S. premiere Saturday night at Stanford's Dinkelspiel Auditorium.
The occasion was a marvelous program by the quartet So Percussion, devoted entirely to Reich's music - mostly the groundbreaking percussion works from the early 1970s that established the composer's rhythmic vocabulary for the ensuing decades. But the headline event was the new score, a beguiling, beautiful and sometimes perplexing creation co-commissioned by Stanford Lively Arts.
To understand just how far "Mallet Quartet" ranges from Reich's earlier interests, it was essential to hear those seminal scores, including "Clapping Music," "Music for Pieces of Wood" and "Drumming Part 1."
Influenced by his studies of Ghanaian drumming and Balinese gamelan music, as well as the medieval vocal technique known as hocketing, Reich created a signature language of rhythmic counterpoint, in which simple rhythmic patterns mesh to create a smooth, dense weave of undulating sound. And in Saturday's crisply sensitive performances, the quartet - which comprises percussionists Jason Treuting, Josh Quillen, Adam Sliwinski and Eric Beach - that language remained as magical and arresting as ever.
But in "Mallet Quartet," a 15-minute piece for two vibraphones and two marimbas, Reich takes that rhythmic language completely for granted and turns his attention elsewhere, to harmony. Although the instrumentation here is reminiscent of the composer's early music, as well as his 1976 masterpiece "Music for 18 Musicians," the effect could scarcely be more different.
Both rhythm and counterpoint recede into the background, replaced by a series of emphatic block chords that are borne along on a current of busy accompaniment figures. This is the only piece of Reich's I've ever heard that sounds as if it had been composed entirely at the piano.
The chords themselves are just as odd, because in place of the composer's usual modal harmonies, "Mallet Quartet" trades in the language of jazz and pop. It unfolds in a series of sharply delineated sections (Reich has never believed much in transitions) that cover the gamut from cool jazz to the piano ballads of Carole King. Even the instrumentation has a jazzy feel to it, with the marimbas serving as an unobtrusive rhythm section and the vibraphones doing the solo work.
Reich, as spry and engaged as ever at 73, was on hand to bask in the audience's well-merited applause, and to augment the quartet's forces in the opening rendition of "Clapping Music" - still one of his most audacious and breathtaking creations.
Percussionist Jim Munzenrider joined the quartet for "Music for Pieces of Wood" and contributed the steady maracas pulse for "Four Organs." The one piece neither old nor new was "Nagoya Marimbas," a gorgeous and deceptively modest duet from 1994.
This article appeared on page E - 2 of the San Francisco Chronicle, Monday, January 11, 2010