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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.
Like Tehillim, Nicholas Lens’ Flamma Flamma: The Fire Requiem is based on a venerable religious tradition and is sung in an ancient language. Herman Portocarero’s libretto is in Latin and qualifies, loosely, as a requiem. Both music and lyrics, however, flavor Western classicism with Eastern ingredients: The piece incorporates singers from the Bulgarian Le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares and kotos, Japanese stringed instruments, while it ecstatically commends human remains to the flames of cremation: “To ash dissolve the body/To sun send back the spirit/From worms preserve the flesh/May fire conquer gloom.”
More triumphant than elegiac, Flamma is exuberantly post-minimalist, though not entirely unindebted to minimalism’s primal pulse (check the hot throb that animates the opening “Hic Iacet”). Atop that pulse, though, Lens arrays orthodox classical components long spurned by Reich and his peers. Indeed, the 76-minute piece is largely based on the contrast between the choral singing of a trio of the Bulgarian women—“raw, unpolished natural voices,” Lens somewhat patronizingly labels them—and a sextet of classically trained vocalists. The latter’s ostentatious, vibrato-heavy performances are just the sort of bel canto overkill that Reich wisely forgoes.
Most of its musical elements are traditional, but Flamma’s aggressive eclecticism couldn’t be more up-to-date. Rock has spiced Western melodicism with Eastern modalism since the Byrds’ 5D, and the East/West contrast is one of the “new” angles that characterizes contemporary electropop. Lens may not be a Leftfield fan, but it’s significant that he’s credited only with “keyboards” and that the album “was made possible” by Sun microcomputers. (And if the thumping “Flamma Flamma” and “In Corpore” don’t merit a dance remix, they certainly deserve to be sampled for one.)
Mirroring Lens’ musical strategies, Portocarero’s lyrics contrast the once-solemn requiem form with a more smartass modern sensibility. As translated in the CD booklet, Flamma includes such pensive reflections on death as “Father is dead/We hate him and we love him/Whose blood and name/We carry without relief” and “Woe the widow/Woe the children/Move your butt woman.” Needless to say, such lines sound more grave in Latin.
Where The Cave’s American commentators are altogether too disconnected from religious mysteries, Flamma strives laughably to be sufficiently Dionysian: “Immaculate/White lamb/May the slaughtering knife/Not hesitate on your throat/Strike priest/And let the blood well up/From smoking entrails/Like a flame,” exclaims “Agnus Purus,” an attempt to damn PETA and move full speed behind into the pagan past. Flamma is too grounded in 19th-century pomp to make such a leap, however.
Musically, Flamma provides more thrills than The Cave, but philosophically its impulses are more suspect. Lens’ acceptance and even exaltation of death seems less philosophical than operatic; he may want to be Heraclitus (for whom the universe was “an ever-living fire”), but he sounds more like Wagner or Strauss. Lens’ pomposity, though, is integral to the effect Flamma achieves. At its most cogent, the piece contrasts Western bombast with Eastern astringency, and such moments would of course be impossible if the bombast had been banished. CP