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Even when minimalism was at its most minimal, composers like Steve Reich, Terry Riley, and Philip Glass were putting things back in as they took things out. Elements from Indian, Balinese, African, and medieval European music replaced the traditions of classical, Romantic, and modern Western composition. Still, the music didn’t start to get crowded until recently.
There’s a lot going on in Reich’s The Cave, which premiered in Europe and New York in the summer and fall of 1993, and not all of it could be transferred to the Steve Reich Ensemble’s recent recording: The full piece also includes video footage—shot and edited by Reich’s wife, Beryl Korot—and an elaborate stage set. Yet eliminating the visual aspect doesn’t significantly uncomplicate this 103-minute work, which recapitulates ideas from many of Reich’s previous compositions. Indeed, the use of video is the only new element; musically, The Cave plays like Steve Reich’s Greatest Hits.
This is the third Reich piece to draw directly from his Jewish heritage. The grotto of the title is the cave of the patriarchs, where Abraham (and, in some accounts, Adam and Eve) is said to be buried, and the composition enlists three differing sets of interpretations of the tale of Abraham and his offspring—by Israelis, Arabs, and Americans. Since Abraham is the symbolic (and, to true believers, literal) father of both the Jews (through Isaac) and the Arabs (through his half-brother Ishmael), the subtext is the contemporary relationship between the Israelis and the Palestinians, half-brothers set against each other.
Reich and Korot undercut that theme, however, with irony and distance: After two acts that present Israeli and Palestinian views, the third and final act is devoted to the voices of Americans, for whom Abraham most likely means Lincoln and Ishmael evokes Moby Dick. The choice of stateside commentators also reveals the piece’s secular-liberal outlook: Among them are Catholic activist Daniel Berrigan, pop astronomer Carl Sagan, philosophy professor and art critic Arthur Danto, avant-garde theater director Elizabeth Lecompte, sculptor Richard Serra, theologian and gay organizer Lisa Rogers, Hopi Indian engineering student Jeffrey Sabala, and new-agey cultural historian Jean Houston. (The latter is the one who trendily suggests that Abraham’s wife, Sarah, is a representative of the ancient matrilineal cultures currently fashionable among theorists of an ideal feminist prehistory.)
The “Typing Music” that accompanied the projection of various passages from the Bible or the Koran recalls “Clapping Music” (1972), which was among Reich’s earliest experiments in adapting his tape-loop techniques to acoustic instruments. Most of The Cave’s music, however, derives from the composer’s two explicitly Jewish works: The chanted, percussive verses recall 1981’s Tehillim, which set ancient Hebrew psalms to music, while the passages in which string players and vocalists mimic the speech of the Israelis, Arabs, and American interpreters echo 1988’s Different Trains, for which the Kronos Quartet was enlisted to emulate the cadences of Holocaust survivors’ reminiscences.
What made those two pieces effective—and they are Reich’s most compelling work of the last 15 years—was less their subject matter than their musical cohesiveness. While expanding on the techniques and timbres of his earlier work, they retained the propulsiveness and continuity of his most monomaniacally stripped-down compositions. By design, though, The Cave is more scattershot, and not just because it includes passages (like the burbling, almost Enolike “Interior of the Cave”) designed to accompany stately video tracking shots. Some of these passages are powerful, but collectively they’re less than coherent.
Long an opponent of the notion that post-minimalists could or should write opera—in part because he dislikes bel canto singing—Reich sees video as a possible foundation for what he calls “a new kind of musical theater.” (What he doesn’t say is that this new musical theater offers an alternative to the lengthy “operas” of Philip Glass, his longtime aesthetic rival.) With The Cave, though, more has been lost than gained. The video interviews determine the course of most of the music, but fail to give it sufficient shape. That was a problem on stage, and it’s a bigger one on disc. If The Cave provides Reich with new directions to pursue in subsequent compositions, it’s because the overloaded piece has more of them than it can handle.CP