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Steve Reich's Pulitzer-Winning 'Double Sextet'

By Sarah Kessler

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Ehmor m’aht, v’ahsay harbay — Say little and do much,” the fourth movement from composer Steve Reich’s “You Are (Variations)” 2004 ensemble piece is a pithy explanation of the style that first brought him attention, Grammy Awards in 1990 and 1999, and, this week, the 2009 Pulitzer prize for music.

His innovative use of dialogue snippets, stripped to potency, re-recorded, and looped around each other, made Reich a pioneer of minimalist music in the 1960s. Over the decades his continuous engagement with different musical forms of expression — from African drumming in Ghana, to traditional scriptural cantillation in Jerusalem, inspired The New York Times to name him “…among the great composers of the century.”

The Pulitzer-winning “Double Sextet,” commissioned by the Grammy-award winning sextet, eighth blackbird, (named for a Wallace Stevens poem, and intentionally lower case), was called “a major work” by the Pulitzer committee, who awarded it the $10,000 prize. The composition — for 12 instruments, two each of violin, cello, piano, vibraphone, clarinet, flute (or six, plus a pre-recorded tape for a sextet to play against their own recording) — debuted March 26th of last year, in Virginia.

“[It] displays an ability to channel an initial burst of energy into a large-scale musical event, built with masterful control and consistently intriguing to the ear,” announced the committee of five, chaired by John Schaefer of WNYC Radio, and which included past Pulitzer-winner Justin Davidson of New York Magazine.

In the 1980s Reich’s work began engaging more directly with his Jewish heritage. The framework from biblical cantillation crept in, melodies hung together from pre-existing patterns like a musical string of beads. His 1981 “Tehillim” (Hebrew for “psalms”) dealt explicitly with Hebrew texts: “There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. In them he has set a tent for the sun” (Psalms 19:2-5).

“Different Trains,” in 1988 went further in technique and in intensity; it uses speech recordings to generate musical material for the instruments, and compares Reich’s childhood memories of train journeys between New York and California with trains that were, at the same time, transporting European children to Nazi death camps.

In 2006, the music world celebrated Reich’s 70th birthday with a regal schedule of celebratory events at New York’s Brooklyn Academy of Music, Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. Roll on another party…

There’s a Youtube clip of the eighth blackbird rehearsing some of “Double Sextet” last year:


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