A special guest post from eighth blackbird’s long time audio engineer Ryan Ingebritsen on the eve of eighth blackbird’s Chicago Counterpoint: A Steve Reich Celebration at Millennium Park on August 22, 2011, for which Ryan has acoustically re-imagined Reich’s provocative, politically-charged early tape pieces, Come Out, Melodica, and It’s Gonna Rain for the Pritzker Pavilion’s state-of-the-art sound system.
Reich Feast: A Sound Engineer’s Perspective
The music of Steve Reich, a joy that came into my life around age 17 when my drum line instructor first played us a recording of “Drumming” to get us to calm down about ourselves, is something that has always simultaneously taken me out of my body musically and constantly challenged me as both a performer, composer, and now as sound engineer.
I have performed Drumming, and Clapping Music has been a staple warmup piece for several electronic and improvisational ensembles I have taken part in over the years. As a composer and appreciator of new music, I have realized that his music could perhaps be the most important of the 20th century. Steve Reich has achieved, in a very clear and simple way, something I think all of the major composers of that century were trying to accomplish: overcoming the tyranny of the 4th dimension of time. But instead of eliminating a sense of measured time or pulse, as was the practice of Webern, Boulez, and Cage, he overcame the restrictions of time, by using the very pulse that others railed against. He uncovered temporal relationships that had not yet been explored, and revealed the relativity of time by throwing off the pulse relationship between musicians by beats and measures, even doing it incrementally in his early tape and later live “phase” pieces.
When I had the opportunity to work with eighth blackbird on Double Sextet, I was both overjoyed to finally meet a composer I had idolized from a young age, and nervous that I might not “get it right”. I was relieved to finally meet the man, who I found to be warm and amazingly supportive at the premier. I realized that he was a composer who had considered the role of sound engineer in composing a piece. To Reich, the engineer is as important to the music as the musicians. The music is meant to be amplified, and to create his signature sound, and your interpretation of the music as a sound engineer, has a profound effect on the musical outcome. In short, Reich is perhaps the first composer who’s music is meant to be “played” by a sound designer and through which the engineer truly becomes part of the ensemble.
As we progress into the 21st century, music technology, the means of reproducing sound, and concepts of concert presentation, are changing and advancing worldwide. The two dimensional world of the proscenium stage and the stereo sound system are not always the most appropriate way to present new works, and more often new music is being presented in multi-dimensional and non-conventional concert spaces using multiple speakers at many levels.
When presented with the opportunity design sound for a concert of Reich’s music in a world class state-of-the-art sound facility such as the Pritzker Pavilion, I was immediately a flutter with ideas of how the space itself could be used in unique ways. I had previously taken part in a collaboration to create a piece of sound art using the pavilion’s surround sound setting for Train Time (facilitated and led by Lou Mallozzi at Experimental Sound Studio and commissioned by ESS and the Chicago Humanities Festival). Through that experience, I learned a great deal about how the system worked. When I learned about eighth blackbird and Third Coast Percussion’s Steve Reich Festival, I contacted Jon Laney, co-designer and current steward of the system to enquire about the possibility of mixing a concert live in surround sound at the Pritzker Pavilion.
Since that day, about a year and a few months ago, I have been involved with eighth blackbird performances of Music for 18 Musicians at various venues in Chicago and New York, and each performance has been a unique experience unto itself. In fact, no two performances have seemed alike to me and I think that is the genius of Reich’s music. The interlocking relationships that culminate in various contrapuntal relationships throughout his music cause you to hear something slightly different each time. Whether it be one of the older phase pieces, or a piece as new and, as some suggest, more traditional, like Double Sextet, repeated listening always yields a different experience or journey, as if you are traveling through multi-dimensional space-time and taking a different wormhole path, causing a riff that was once background noise on one listening to becomes your main focus on the next.
This is the beauty of being a sound engineer for his music. You are the one member of the ensemble who gets to hear the “whole” of the piece and who can make choices in the moment about how the piece, in its entirety, should be interpreted. In using the full spectrum of the sonic space that surrounds the Pritzker’s seating bowl and great lawn, I will be able to reveal different aspects of the multi-dimensional relationships between the various “licks” that make up the piece, and in doing so interpret the piece in a new way. Just as Reich’s music itself seems to transcend the time barrier, this performance of Music for 18 will utilize the extra dimension of space to explore the meta- and micro-interlocking relationships that make up the whole of this masterpiece. In quite different ways, both Mallet Quartet and Double Sextet also are explored under this microscope to accentuate the relationships of space that exists in these works.
We also decided that this would be a great opportunity to present Reich’s only three “tape” works, Come Out, Melodica, and It’s Gona Rain. These three pieces are based on samples, first from a victim of brutality during the Harlem riots of 1964, second, a short segment of a melody thought of in a dream and played on a Melodica, and the third, from a preacher preaching about the great flood. Lou Mallozzi at Experimental Sound Studio again offered his assistance and we were able to create three surround mixes of all three pieces which rely heavily on the original spatial relationship between two stereo channels to create a new and slightly re-imagined version of the piece that utilizes the space available above the great lawn to capture and enhance the intensity of these three works. Though no liberties were taken with the pieces themselves, as to preserve the original intent, the two original tracks have been moved around in the larger space, sometimes subtly, sometimes radically, to capture and reflect the energy and intensity of the original texts and melodies and to emphasize structural shifts. These three early “process” works were instrumental in the way that Reich’s music evolved from that point and are an example of technology opening a door to a new way of thinking about art and music. I thought it appropriate to use the technology available at the magnificent facility we have in Chicago to further the musical journey started over 40 years ago with these three works.
Reich’s music is the kind that future generations to come will continue to interpret, shedding new light on and finding new windows and insights into its structure and form, much the way Bach and Mozart are still interpreted and reinterpreted to the present day. But as Reich’s music was perhaps the first whose life blood flows through speakers, it is also the first where the sound engineer takes on the honor and responsibility of an interpreter.