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Ensemble Signal Celebrates Steve Reich's 80th Birthday at Miller Theater

by Nick Stubblefield

Steve Reich Variations 2016A string section, a wind section, six percussionists, six singers, and four pianos on one stage: that's how you throw an 80th birthday party for Steve Reich, widely regarded as America's greatest living composer. Ensemble Signal riveted the sold out crowd to their seats when they opened the 2016-2017 season at Columbia University's Miller Theatre last week with two of Reich's more recent works, juxtaposing Morse code-like rhythms with startlingly haunting vocal harmonies. The effect was mind-grabbing and mesmerizing, while often soothing and reflective. 

Daniel Variations (2006) started with a gut-punching fortissimo from the piano and vibraphone: dark, foreboding, and ominous. Tense, tight vocal harmonies cut crisply through a moment later. Daniel calls upon four singers, but the sound Ensemble Signal produced was more like a large Gregorian choir: they were not only precise on entrances and pacing, but blended to perfection.  

Occasional but vital bass-drum hits punctuated several passages, while the mallet players provided the pulse, staying tightly interlocked both in and out of phase with each other and the piano. The effect was entrancing, providing a contemporary context to the ancient-sounding vocals. Only fitting, given that the title of the work was derived from both the biblical Book of Daniel and the Jewish-American reporter Daniel Pearl, who was murdered by Islamist extremists in Pakistan.


Steve Reich. Jeffrey Herman for 

A standard stage set up doesn't normally include four grand pianos, but for Steve Reich, nothing is out of the ordinary. On You Are (2004), the ensemble amped up the energy level with a relentless machine-gun ostinato: an instantly appealing and enthralling effect. The mallets followed in tight synchronization, creating a mechanized sound that was nearly electronic sounding in its execution. Strings and woodwinds interlocked on long tones, offering a counterbalance to the hard pulse of the densely layered percussion. 

Ensemble Signal was able to capture all of the many facets of Reich's compositions in a way that was transporting, joyous, and ultimately satisfying.