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Highly Recommended: The Best of Steve Reich (FREE!)

By Alexander Hough in Arts & Entertainment on Aug 19, 2011 8:40PM

Some folks are Pitchfork people, others Lollapalooza advocates, but for some of us on staff, the most anticipated show of the summer is this Monday's free concert of Steve Reich's music in Millennium Park performed by some of the best locally-sourced musicians - eighth blackbird, Third Coast Percussion, and a handful of their talented friends.

The concert, a celebration for Reich's 75th birthday later this year, will feature works spanning his entire career. Reich's music is generally called minimalism, although that term was more or less conjured to describe its contrast with the Europhile rhythm-less complexity and atonality of post-war avant-garde classical music. Reich had traditional formal training, doing graduate work at Juilliard and studying with Darius Milhaud and Luciano Bero at Mills College in Oakland, California, but even his attempts at serialism - in which a piece is based on a composer-chosen ordering of the 12 chromatic notes - had a more definite tonal center and pulse.

Music for 18 Musicians (1976), which headlines Monday's concert, is the pinnacle of his early style, and, in our opinion, the apex of his entire oeuvre. Tonal and incessantly rhythmic, the hour-long piece also differs from modernist music of the time in its non-narrative structure; there are no peaks and valleys, no climax or denouement.

At the same time, Music for 18 Musicians is essentially a theme and variations, one of the earliest established forms in Western music. The opening section consists of 11 chords, the length of which are dictated by the breath of the vocalists and bass clarinetists. Each subsequent section takes a chord in order of its appearance in the introduction and creates a smaller piece based on it. While all this is slowly evolving, pianos and mallet percussion lay down an upbeat pulse. The experience of hearing Music for 18 Musicians is like watching the ocean, seeing the movement of the waves as well as the larger currents. This is why we're so damn excited for this concert: it's the perfect piece for a relaxing late summer night at Pritzker Pavilion.

Two of Reich's most recent pieces will begin the concert: Double Sextet, a work eighth blackbird commissioned and premiered in 2008 and which won a Pulitzer in 2009, and 2009's Mallet Quartet, which will receive its Chicago premiere at the hands of Third Coast Percussion.

Interspersed throughout the show will be three Reich gems from the beginning of his career, Come Out, It's Gonna Rain, and Melodica. These pieces, composed in 1965 and 1966, use a phased tape technique Reich fortuitously discovered. While living in the Bay Area, Reich recorded a vociferous recounting of the story of Noah and the flood given by a Pentecostal preacher in San Francisco's Union Square. Reich was trying to splice the line "It's gonna rain" between his left and right headphone when the two identical tape recordings lined up. One recording began to slowly move ahead of the other one, creating an ever-increasing phase shift. The result - a sort of psychedelic update on the traditional canon using the natural melody of human speech - produces a hair-raising cacophony. It's Gonna Rain, with its warnings of apocalypse, is particularly chilling given the chaos into which America was rapidly descending at the time.

Come Out's taped excerpt is of 19-year-old Daniel Hamm, who was one of six people accused of killing a man during the 1964 Harlem Riot, the violent response to an off-duty policeman killing a 15-year-old black youth. Hamm had been beaten by police and was not receiving medical attention. To show badly he was injured he said, "I had to, like, open the bruise up and let some of the bruise blood come out to show them." The whole scenario is, of course, sadly similar to the UK riots, and we'll be hearing Hamm's repeated frustration at injustice with new ears.

Melodica is made with the same technique, but is not based on spoken words, marking Reich's shift away from tape pieces - it was his last - and towards an experimentation with phasing live instruments that culminated in Music for 18 Musicians. Sound engineer Ryan Ingebritsen has taken the original stereo recordings and created 5.1 surround sound versions for the Pritzker Pavilion's sound system.

The concert will begin at 6:30 p.m., but Come Out will precede the show, so make sure to get there by 6:15 p.m. Melodica will be played prior to Music for 18 Musicians, and It's Gonna Rain will be tacked onto the end, apparently an effort to avoid jinxing the weather for the outdoor concert.

Monday, August 22, at 6:30 p.m., Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, FREE