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Philip Glass, Steve Reich and Rhys Chatham: Either/Or, Richard Carrick (founder), David Shively (founder), Issue Project Room, Brooklyn, NY, 24.10.2008 (BH)


Anthony Burr, keyboards
Andrew Byrne, keyboards
Richard Carrick, piano and keyboards
Jennifer Choi, violin
David Shively, percussion

Alex Waterman, percussion, keyboards, cello


Philip Glass: Music in Similar Motion (1969)

Steve Reich: Four Organs (1970)

Rhys Chatham: Two Gongs (1971)

This evening still has me chuckling.  Recall, if you will, the single loudest concert you have ever been to.  (Mine was a performance by the German art-rock band Einsturzende Neubaten back in the 1980s at the Palladium in New York City.)   I now have a new candidate in the running, thanks to the slightly devilish guys of Either/Or, who presented three examples of early minimalism as part of Issue Project Room's Darmstadt: Classics of the Avant Garde.

Prefacing Rhys Chatham's self-explanatory Two Gongs, the group's co-founder Richard Carrick made reference to ear plugs.  Let's be clear: they are not optional, but mandatory. (I brought a pair, but many in the audience did not, so someone was sent out to fetch a box.)  Using two mammoth Chinese gongs, David Shively and Alex Waterman began touching the surfaces with light taps, creating shivering silvery tones.  One could pause to consider the beauty of these instruments, both aurally and physically, and perhaps anticipate a certain meditative state to come.  But as the 63-minute piece progresses (pausing for emphasis), the volume level steadily rises as the two players smack the surfaces with increasing power and frequency, unleashing a mammoth Category 5 hurricane of sound waves.  Without protection one almost certainly risks permanent hearing damage.

With ear plugs (and occasionally fingers pressing plugged ears still more tightly shut), Chatham's experiment is at least bearable; without them I can't imagine any human being sticking around much past the first peak, and there are five or six of them.  (Mr. Waterman tried to experience the pure sound until the first crest, but was quickly forced to cover his ears for the remainder of the hour.) 

After a while the effect became almost endearing: the earthy buzz and roar began to be almost trance-like in their power.  The sound burrows right into your stomach.  I wondered at what level my spleen would simply burst, my blood vessel walls would disintegrate, or my brain would become unmoored, floating around in its fluid.  As the titanic waves keep tolling, engulfing one's body, one senses the sheer power of these instruments and what they are capable of.  It's notable that most composers rarely use them at full tilt.

Not surprisingly, after about five minutes an entire row of people quietly got up and quickly hustled themselves out.  I can't really blame them.  Listening to Chatham's experiment probably rearranged some of my molecules, not that there's anything wrong with that.  But after sonically going over Niagara Falls in a cardboard box, the remainder of the program almost seemed washed away, outstanding as it was.  To begin the program, violinist Jennifer Choi was part of the small ensemble that did a fine, exacting job with Philip Glass's Music in Similar Motion, written long before the composer became a household name.  Designed to be performed by variable combinations of instruments, Glass has each one enter in turn, building an ever more luminous fabric as the timbre and texture change.

Steve Reich's Four Organs is often performed these days on electronic keyboards, given the difficulties of assembling a quartet of organs in a single space.  With Mr. Shively giving solemn attention to a pair of maracas that form the rhythmic spine, the musicians (Carrick, Waterman, Anthony Burr and Andrew Byrne) found surprising drama in Reich's minimal palette.  But the Chatham pretty much swept everything else aside.  Afterward, Mr. Waterman confessed he was slightly disoriented, adding, "Now that was a real mend-binding experience."

Bruce Hodges

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