Steve Reich has been hailed as “America’s greatest living composer” (The Village Voice), “the most original musical thinker of our time” (The New Yorker), and “among the great composers of the century” (New York Times). From his early taped speech pieces It’s Gonna Rain (1965) and Come Out (1966) to his and video artist Beryl Korot’s digital video opera Three Tales (2002), Reich’s path has embraced not only aspects of Western Classical music, but the structures, harmonies, and rhythms of non-Western and American vernacular music, particularly jazz. “There’s just a handful of living composers who can legitimately claim to have altered the direction of musical history, and Steve Reich is one of them,” states The Guardian (London).
Double Sextet comprises two identical sextets of flute, clarinet, vibraphone, piano, violin, and cello. Doubling the instrumentation was done so that, as in so many of Reich’s earlier works, two identical instruments could interlock to produce one overall pattern. The composer says, “For example, in this piece you will hear the pianos and vibes interlocking in a highly rhythmic way to drive the rest of the ensemble.” The piece can be played in two ways: with 12 musicians, or with six playing against a recording of themselves.
Reich continues, “The idea of a single player playing against a recording of themselves goes all the way back to Violin Phase of 1967. The expansion of this idea to an entire chamber ensemble playing against pre-recordings of itself begins with Different Trains (1988). By doubling an entire chamber ensemble, one creates the possibility for multiple simultaneous contrapuntal webs of identical instruments.”
In 2×5, Reich expands his palate with rock instrumentation. Scored for two sets of five instruments (hence “2×5”), this 21-minute piece calls for a total of ten musicians: four electric guitars, two pianos, two bass guitars, and two drum sets. Performers can either play the piece all-live with ten musicians or with five live musicians against a pre-recorded tape, as Bang on a Can did for the premiere on the opening night of the Manchester International Festival.
“Clearly 2×5 is not rock and roll, but uses the same instruments. It’s an example of the essential difference between ‘classical music’ and ‘popular music.’ And that essential difference is: one is notated, and the other is not notated,” Reich says. “I had to find musicians who (A), could read, and (B), had a genuine rock feeling, and there Bang on a Can excels.