Music and Misery

Steve Reich, the distinguished visiting composer at the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra's New Music Festival, has created successfully and respectfully from the Holocaust and 9/11


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In his recent Django Unchained as well as 2009's Inglourious Basterds, filmmaker Quentin Tarantino breaks the ultimate artistic taboo: Having fun with the concepts of mass murder and genocide.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/01/2013 (3782 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In his recent Django Unchained as well as 2009’s Inglourious Basterds, filmmaker Quentin Tarantino breaks the ultimate artistic taboo: Having fun with the concepts of mass murder and genocide.

Django is an action flick where African-American slaves get to burn down a Southern U.S. Plantation. Basterds took the revenge fantasy even further by depicting the assassination of Adolf Hitler by Jews during the Second World War.

While it’s safe to say no discerning film-goer would leave either flick believing in the empowerment of slavery-era African-Americans or European Jews during the Holocaust, the sheer extent of the on-screen revisionism — let alone the joyful tone — poses troubling questions for artists of all stripes.

The Associated Press Composer Steve Reich has managed to create successful and respectful music out of both the Holocaust and the destruction of the World Trade Center.

In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, when the West first learned the full extent of the Holocaust, philosophers, authors and artists alike shunned the notion of using genocide as the basis for art.

“Writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric, the German cultural critic and musicologist Theodor Adorno famously quipped.

The sheer scale of genocide made it unfathomable to the point where any artistic depiction ultimately fails, Adorno argued. Thinkers as diverse as journalist Hannah Arendt, author Elie Wiesel and Catholic theologian Johann Baptist Metz also elucidated on this notion, to the point where some critics even trashed The Diary of Anne Frank as painting a far-too-cuddly picture of the Holocaust.

A softening of the idea art could not contemplate human atrocities took place in the 1970s and 1980s, when critics and audiences alike accepted works such as the U.S. slavery miniseries Roots, based on the Alex Haley novel, and The Killing Fields, a film about the atrocities perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. In the late 20th Century, it became OK to attempt to tell stories about human suffering if the intent was to shine a little light on history.

But now that the pendulum has swung so far beyond historical storytelling to facile revisionism, it’s worth demanding artists return to a documentarian approach to subjects as serious as genocide. And if you’re looking for a guideline, there may be no better living model than composer Steve Reich, who has managed to create successful and respectful music out of both the Holocaust and the destruction of the World Trade Center.

Reich, the distinguished visiting composer at the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra’s New Music Festival next week, was four blocks away from the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in 2001. A decade later, he completed WTC 9/11, a piece that incorporates recorded snippets of NORAD and New York City fire department transmissions on Sept. 11 as well as interviews with some of the composer’s friends and neighbours in lower Manhattan.

Reich took a similar approach toward the Holocaust in 1988’s Different Trains, which also used recorded voices. As a Jewish child during the Second World War, Reich made cross-continental train trips in the U.S. as he shuttled between divorced parents in New York City and Los Angeles. As an adult, he confronted the idea that Jewish children in Europe would have taken a very different sort of train ride.

Different Trains features the voices of Holocaust survivors as well as a U.S. train porter and Reich’s nanny, who accompanied him on the train trips between New York City and Los Angeles. The work won a Grammy, as critics praised not just the music but the juxtaposition of Reich’s personal experiences with documentary materials.

Writing about mass murder is something no artist can take lightly, Reich suggests.

“If somebody came to me and said, ‘Steve do a piece about the Holocaust,’ I’d say ‘What, are you crazy?’ Reich said over the phone from Los Angeles earlier this month.

The idea for the piece grew out of the disjunction between Reich’s own experiences and those of Jewish children in Europe. The recordings with Holocaust survivors allowed him to avoid the philosophical questions that surround the appropriation of voice in the service of art.

“I used their speech melodies, not mine. When I do that, I’m foisting my fantasy (on the work). As they speak, I write,” he said, adding he took the same approach in the creation of WTC 9/11. “If Different Trains succeeds, if WTC 9/11 succeeds, it’s because it’s the people who experienced those (events are) talking about the experiences they went through.”

Different Trains is one of seven Reich pieces that will appear as part of the WSO’s 2013 New Music Festival, which begins its six-day run on Monday, Jan. 28. Festival co-curator Vincent Ho, the WSO’s composer-in-residence, suggested Reich is one of the few composers on the planet with gravitas and experience to pull off such a piece.

“He doesn’t pander to the audience,” said Ho, referring to the tendency for less mature composers to attempt to offer some sort of uplifting statement about horrific events. The idea any meaning can be derived from the Holocaust is what originally angered philosophers and other thinkers during the postwar period.

Ho does not believe artists should shy away from difficult subject matter. The composer has an emotionally difficult piece of his own premiering at the festival this year: From Darkness to Light: A Spiritual Journey, inspired by the death of a friend who succumbed to cancer on his 55th birthday.

The new work, which will feature percussion improvisation by Dame Evelyn Glennie, will appear on Feb. 2, the final night of the festival, along with 1983’s The Desert Music, one of the last pieces Reich wrote for a full orchestra.

Reich’s use of tape dates back to the 1960s, when he first made his name for himself as a composer by using taped voices and instruments to create phasing patterns — essentially canons, where two or more instruments begin to play variations on the same melody, juxtaposing similar but different sounds on top of the other.

In the 1970s, Reich started writing even more elaborate pieces that played with time intervals as well as melodies. By the late ’80s, however, he started focusing on writing for smaller groups of musicians, mainly to make it easier for audiences to hear counterpoint and interlocking rhythms.

“I stopped writing for the orchestra (in 1986) simply because there were too many strings. I need one first violin or maybe three, but absolutely no more than that,” he said. “With all these musicians, it’s all too fat.”

Reich’s Clapping Music (1972), Tehillim (1981), Vermont Counterpoint (1982), New York Counterpoint (1985) and Double Sextet (2007) will also be presented at the New Music Festival, with all except Tehillim performed by smaller ensembles.

Reich said he tried to persuade the WSO to stage a chamber version of The Desert Music. But the WSO is obligated to present orchestral works. “We’re the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra,” said Ho, placing an emphasis on the final word of the ensemble’s title.

The presence of Reich adds something of a rock-star quality to this year’s festival, as Reich is one of the best-known names associated with the loose genre of composition known as minimalism. Commissions by The Kronos Quartet, one of the planet’s most commercially successful string quartets, have brought Reich’s music to a broad listening audience.

So have endorsements by rock musicians, DJs and electronic music producers. Over the years, Reich’s work has influenced soundscape artists of all sorts, from Brian Eno and David Bowie in the 1970s to The Orb and other electronic acts that came to prominence during the ambient-music explosion of the 1990s.

In 1999, Nonesuch Records — Kronos’ label — released Reich Remixed, where artists such as DJ Spooky and Howie B reinterpreted the composer. And in 2011, Radiohead guitarist and film composer Jonny Greenwood performed Reich’s Electric Counterpoint in a live setting in Poland.

Reich returned the favour last year by reworking two Radiohead pieces into Radiohead Rewrite, which will debut in London in March. The give-and-take with younger artists completes a circle for Reich, who began his musical career as a fan of jazz musicians such as Miles Davis and John Coltrane.

“If I was who I was in my early teens, it makes sense people who are that age now will find something in my music,” Reich said.

The WSO plans to perform a Greenwood piece, Suite from There Will Be Blood, on Feb. 1, along with Reich’s Tehillim and Hikoi, by Kiwi composer Gareth Farr.

Rounding out the composition-pop connection this year is Pop Nuit, a pair of performances headlined by Arcade Fire violinist Sarah Neufeld and Winnipeg’s Royal Canoe.

But don’t make the mistake it’s all going to be deathly serious year, as even Reich has lighter moments. Clapping Music, for example, is precisely what it sounds like — music written for a percussion instrument universally associated with not just being happy, but knowing it.


Monday, Jan. 28

Elmer Iseler Singers

Venue: Centennial Concert Hall, 7:30 p.m.

Main attraction: Twenty-piece Toronto vocal ensemble the Elmer Iseler Singers, plus soprano Rebecca Whelan and bass clarinetist Jeff Reilly.

Works: Lamentatio Jeremiae Prophetae, by Halifax’s Peter-Anthony Togni; Voices, by the late former Winnipegger Harry Freedman; Tag Des Jahrs, by Finland’s Kaija Saariaho; Silent Dawn, by Vancouver’s Timothy Corlis.

Tickets: $25 adults, $10 students

Tuesday, Jan. 29

Christos Hatzis: World Premiere

Venue: Centennial Concert Hall, 7:30 p.m.

Main attraction: The WSO performs the world premieres of Redemption: Book 3, by Toronto composer Christos Hatzis, and Winnipegger Jim Hiscott’s Cantu.

Other works: Voyage, by Edmonton composer Daniel Belland; Romeo, by New York City composer and multimedia artist Michael Gordon.

Tickets: $25 adults, $10 students

Wednesday, Jan. 30

Ghost Train

Venue: Pantages Playhouse Theatre, 7:30 p.m.

Main attraction: The University of Manitoba Wind Ensemble and Flute Ensemble perform four pieces, including the first of the week by the festival’s distinguished guest composer Steve Reich.

Works: Reich’s Vermont Counterpoint, Malcolm Forsyth’s Colour Wheel, Andrew Staniland’s Four Horsemen and Eric Whitacre’s Ghost Train Triptych.

Tickets: $10


Pop Nuit

Venue: West End Cultural Centre, 9 p.m.

Main attraction: Arcade Fire violinist Sarah Neufeld, performing solo.

Opening up: Winnipeg multi-instrumentalist Jesse Krause.

Tickets: $15 advance, $17 at the door

Thursday, Jan. 31

Steve Reich’s Chamber Music

Venue: Centennial Concert Hall, 7:30 p.m.

Main attraction: Four pieces by Steve Reich, performed by nine WSO musicians plus the University of Manitoba Percussion Ensemble.

Works: Reich’s Different Trains, Clapping Music, New York Counterpoint and Double Sextet, the latter performed in tandem with six Royal Winnipeg Ballet dancers.

Tickets: $25 adults, $10 students

Friday, Feb. 1

Glennie & Reich, Part 1

Venue: Centennial Concert Hall, 8 p.m.

Works: The WSO performs Reich’s Tehillim and two North American premieres: Suite from There Will Be Blood, by Radiohead guitarist/soundtrack composer Jonny Greenwood; and Hikoi, by New Zealand’s Gareth Farr.

Guest star: Percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie solos on the Farr piece.

Tickets: $92 to $23.75

Saturday, Feb. 2

Glennie & Reich, Part 2

Venue: Centennial Concert Hall, 8 p.m.

Works: The WSO performs The Desert Music, one of Reich’s last lengthy pieces, and the world premiere of From Darkness to Light: A Spiritual Journey, by WSO composer-in-residence Vincent Ho.

Guest star: Percussionist Glennie improvises and solos on Ho’s piece.

Tickets: $92 to $23.75


Pop Nuit: NMF Wrap-Up Party

Venue: Pantages Playhouse lobby, 11 p.m.

Main attraction: Winnipeg’s Royal Canoe will perform Beck’s Song Reader, which was released only in form of sheet music.

Opening up: Tasman Richardson, a Montreal DJ who works with film-audio clips.

Admission: $15 advance, $17 at the door.

Festival passes

Adults: $99 Seniors: $89 Students: $59 Add both Pop Nuit events: $25 extra

Buy online: or Buy over the phone: WSO (204.949.3999) or Ticketmaster Arts (1.888.985.2787) Buy in person: WSO box office at the Centennial Concert Hall or Ticketmaster locations.

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