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Steve REICH (b. 1936)
Three Tales (1998-2002): Hindenburg; Bikini; Dolly
Synergy Vocals
Steve Reich Ensemble/Bradley Lubman
Plus Bonus DVD
NONESUCH 7559-79835-2 [59.37]


An interesting, thought-provoking project, especially with the inclusion, at no additional cost, on DVD, of the visual "interpretation" of these pieces, by Reich's wife Beryl Korot, recalling, at least superficially, the previous The Cave. However, I have to question, at the outset, the relevance or validity of juxtaposing two relatively distant 20th century historical events, one, as far as this listener is concerned, ultimately more significant than the other, with a third that is cutting edge already and seems to be becoming more so by the week/month. For what it's worth, it seems self-evident to say that Bikini Atoll and its actual and potential consequences are still all-pervading but the Hindenberg disaster, although interesting in itself, it is probably not immanent, once the original lessons had been learnt, i.e. that, as airship fillers(?)/floatants(?) go, helium is safe, hydrogen isn't. The overall theme is obviously one of the benign/malign trade-off of technology, progress etc. in general and in that sense, at least, it works quite well. Musically speaking though, there is nothing here that would offer any element of surprise to a seasoned Reich listener, save perhaps the ironic(?) Wagner quotation in Hindenburg. The point is that the pieces are and are probably meant to be their texts. In something like Different Trains, one of Reich's real masterpieces, the text and music share the limelight and are so well integrated that it is hard to separate the two; here the documentary aspect assumes prominence.

The best work on this disc, and by some distance, is Dolly. An exceptionally focused piece which, among other virtues, gives ample opportunity for the brilliant but doctrinaire and ultimately smug neo-Darwinian reductionist Richard Dawkins to hang himself, metaphorically speaking, several times over - death by soundbite ("Machines created by our genes")! Several other eminent figures in the field, including the rather more humanistic Stephen Jay Gould, contribute to the "debate"/sound collage, yet I confess that it may all mean a great deal more to the biologically enlightened(?), like myself, than other listeners, the latter probably in the majority. What is clear, is the stance taken by Reich in his selection of material; as the booklet notes state, he is "expressing an attitude that life is sacred". This is something that sits uncomfortably with Dawkins' reductionist philosophy and cloning technology but not, I would say, with the ethos of great scientists like Albert Einstein. I'm with the composer on this one and would argue that criticism he has received along the lines of "his music relies on technology therefore he is a hypocrite" is well wide of the mark. Like music, technology and progress can be good or bad and act as (be used as?) a force for either. Reich's masterstroke in Dolly is to use the most most manipulated voice present here, a vocodered childlike utterance, to relate some of the most simple but also profound truths (in relation to the Garden of Eden and "the Fall" and the nature of reproduction - as opposed to cloning, presumably).

I have never heard and certainly never reviewed a disc which has focused my mind so clearly on the textual content to the apparent detriment of the music. That said, I stand by my original impressions that this is often very ordinary Reich (and there is plenty of extraordinary already out there) in musical terms. The music, to paraphrase Dawkins' "nihilism" (I cannot think of a better way to describe it), almost represents a "survival machine" for the texts/ideas it carries. In that sense it is very utilitarian and indeed, where Dolly is concerned, is probably doing a great public service in exposing how extreme some viewpoints in the mainstream scientific "establishment" actually are - a "machine created by our genes" is far easier to justify aborting, subjecting to "voluntary" or compulsory euthanasia.

As I stated at the outset, this is a very stimulating project, and Reich's integrity and respect for what he is dealing with are unquestionable. It provided, above all, to this listener, a stark reminder, if one were needed, of how close the dark underbelly of modern evolutionary theory/genetics lies to eugenics and the appalling legacy of Mengele's death camp experiments - (Steve) Reich vs (Third) Reich, if you will. Recommended but perhaps not mainly for the music.

Neil Horner



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