(This review is by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Luke Quinton.)
American minimalist composer Steve Reich is officially old now but his influence in music has never been greater.
Reich turns 80 this year, and Austin’s most prominent percussion group is on the case, with Line Upon Line percussion performing a set of Reich concerts this past weekend, part of a “mini-Reich” festival which continues next week.
“Music for Mallet Instruments, Voice, and Organ” (1973) has that familiar Reich sound: a trance-like pattern that subtly swirls and shifts like a carpet under your feet.
For their concert at the Dougherty Arts Center, a bigger venue to coincide with the West Austin Studiou Tour, Line Upon Line had a band of recruits for this work. The ensemble included singers and all manner of percussion instruments, and they began this tricky little work beautifully, with a crisp sound and gorgeous vocals.
A time or two the piece seemed to pop out of alignment (a reminder that these pieces can be fiendishly difficult), but no real damage was done. “Music for Mallets” is good Reich, but perhaps not his absolute best. It certainly keeps your interest, but about halfway through it sort of gives up its tricks. As stimulating as others, but not as much fun.
A surprise was up next: electric guitar.
Percussionists haven’t replaced quartets just yet, and we don’t hear Reich’s work all that often, so it was great to see “Electric Counterpoint” on the program. Out popped LUL’s Cullen Faulk, on black electric guitar.
Chamber fans may recall another counterpoint performance with Austin Chamber Music Center some years back, with the clarinet of Richard Stoltzman. This piece is one of two counters to that counterpoint, a guitar part originally performed by Pat Metheny.
Having recorded 12 interlocking parts, Faulk, who was hilariously bashful about switching from mallet to axe, played the 13th part live on stage. He had no reason to worry, as it turned out. Faulk performed an intriguing and clean job of the piece, which felt fresh, especially unchained from its recording. It’s a great piece to hear live. The classic Metheny recording is precise, but a bit dull. Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood has been playing this live, though his is a touch rustic. Faulk’s performance popped out nicely live. The recordings were slightly muddy in the mix, but the whole thing chanted and swayed nicely, at times like an artsy Bombino jam.
The best came last.
Reich was still making great work in the 80s, which is obvious from 1984’s “Sextet.” This work could be the soundtrack to “Alice in Wonderland” with each subtle shift curiouser and curiouser. It’s intensely technical, and has the small ensemble wrapping and unwrapping on itself.
LUL’s playing was sensitive, with a real spark of life. Some of the shifts in key and rhythm are eyebrow-raising, but LUL took a wicked pace and made it sing.