Steve Reich once told me: “The musicians who can play my music with the right rhythmical feel are being born now…” Practicing the classical music repertoire is not enough to prepare you for playing his music.
Sure you need it; Especially having played the music of Bach, Bartok and Stravinsky is very helpful in approaching a Reich composition. Yet performing Reich’s music requires total commitment and unwavering sense of time. The rhythmical patterns don’t allow for any of the rubato we, classical musicians, are accustomed to.
It takes the kind of globally informed, versatile musicians who are familiar with African, Balinese Gamelan, and Rock music to play his music right.
The performers of the future, he mused, will have that natural ability to fuse all that, as 21st Century concert musicians evolve and embrace a much larger vocabulary.
In the late 1990s we started talking about a cello piece Steve would write for me. The piece was to have its New York premiere at the inaugural season of Zankel Hall in the fall of 2003, and was commissioned by the Koussevitzky Foundation. Cello Counterpoint is written for a live solo cello with seven pre-recorded cello tracks. It followed the succession of Counterpoint compositions from earlier days: Electric Counterpoint, Vermont Counterpoint, and New York Counterpoint.
Reich wrote the piece in his house in Vermont during the winter and spring of 2002/2003. “One of the most difficult pieces I have ever written” Steve told me upon delivering the first manuscript…
We went into the studio to record the piece with Reich and Judy Sherman, his long-time producer in the control room. We recorded the piece in three long 12-hour days. Constructing it one-cello-line-at-a-time. The first movement has some very tricky groove sections where the time signature changes every bar -- creating a pattern of 5/8, 7/8, 6/8, 2/4 with alternating fast eighth notes across the different cello parts. We started with the eighth cello part and built the interlocking rhythmical patterns from the bass up. Once we had the “bed” and everything was locking in place we added the top cello melodic parts. Intonation was a huge thing -– the harmonic structure of the first movement never falls within the natural open-strings harmony of the cello. The many flats in the key give Cello Counterpoint a dark, rich hue, bringing a different quality of sound out of the cello. Yet the eighth notes are relentless and constantly pushing the music forward.
The second movement in E♭ minor is a slow canon in seven parts. Sitting way high in the cello register in this uncharacteristic key, it creates once more a unique sonic timbre unlike any other cello piece I know.
I have performed Cello Counterpoint in many of the world’s greatest concert halls, from Carnegie Hall to the Barbican in London, the Kennedy Center in D.C., and Sydney’s Opera House.
It is never an easy piece to play yet always an exhilarating experience. And there is no doubt in my mind that this piece will become one of those essential pieces in the cello repertoire that every cellist should learn and attempt to perform.
I feel very fortunate to have been the cellist for whom Reich chose to write his only cello composition.