Matching his music to visual images is not a new departure for Steve Reich. His two video operas, The Cave and Three Tales, composed with his wife, the video artist Beryl Korot, were his most significant achievements of the 1990s. But for Reich/Richter, first performed in 2019 to mark the opening of the Manhattan arts centre The Shed, Reich worked with an existing film, Moving Picture (946-3), which the artist Gerhard Richter had made with the director Corinna Belz.
To coordinate changes in the visuals with his music, Reich worked with a time-coded copy of Richter’s abstract film. The images begin with simple stripes, which gradually divide and become more and more complex, before reversing the process and returning to the stripes with which it began; the music follows that arch-like structure across 38 minutes. Some of the reviews of early performances of Reich/Richter found it difficult to appreciate the visual complexity and the musical processes of the score simultaneously, but Reich always intended his score for 14 instruments (pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, vibraphones and pianos, with string quartet) to have an independent life in the concert hall, too.
The cool, elegant Ensemble Intercontemporain performance, taken from a 2020 Paris concert, reveals Reich/Richter as one of Reich’s most impressive recent works. While the music begins by mirroring the multiplying processes of Richter’s film, beginning with a two-note semiquaver pattern, then moving to a four-note one and so on, it soon abandons that system, introducing longer note values and allowing individual instrumental lines to “escape” from the pulsing textures. In the central section, when the film is at its most intricate, Reich’s music slows to sustained chords, before gathering pace again and eventually returning to the semiquavers of the opening. If the music never quite achieves the power and majesty of Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, it has something of that great work’s certainty and inevitability, which is more than enough.
This week’s other pick
Reich discusses performing Reich/Richter in Conversations, his recently published book of dialogues with fellow composers and collaborators compiled during the pandemic. The first and longest of these exchanges is with David Lang, one of the co-founders of the new-music platform Bang on a Can, and the latest disc of Lang’s own music is also released this week, on Pentatone. Assembled over 14 years, The Writings is a collection of settings of texts from the Hebrew Bible that are particularly associated with holidays; they are enchanted unaccompanied choral pieces, jewel-like in their crystalline beauty and performed with just the right degree of gentle detachment by Cappella Amsterdam under Daniel Reuss.