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ACME In Concert: Steve Reich's Complete String Quartets


  • Different Trains (1988)
  • Triple Quartet (1998)
  • WTC 9/11 (2010)
  • Moving through the stories of many lives told in myriad ways: This is what it feels like to spend time with Steve Reich's three innovative and profound string quartets. It's even more powerful to hear all three — Different Trains (1988), Triple Quartet (1998) and WTC 9/11 (2010)on a single night, especially played with such soul, passion and excellent command by the dynamos of the American Contemporary Music Ensemble (aka ACME), a group that features some of today's most talented and vibrant players on New York's new music scene. While all three pieces were originally written for the Kronos Quartet, ACME's performance of them indicates how widely Reich's quartets are being embraced by a new generation of string players, including for this performance live from New York City's (Le) Poisson Rouge, in a broadcast collaboration with Q2 Music that originally aired on Sept. 11, 2012.

    The Triple Quartet is, as its name suggests, written for not one but three string quartets. There are two performance options for this work: A single ensemble may record the second and third quartets and then play live along with their own recordings, or the piece can be performed by a dozen or more string players together. (In this performance, conductor Donato Cabrera marshaled the forces.) Unlike Different Trains and WTC 9/11,this beguiling work is entirely instrumental and classically structured in three movements: two churning outer movements in which the second and third quartets play interlocking chords and a hypnotically and beautifully melancholic slow middle movement.

    Despite the fact that Reich had already worked with spoken word and tape as far back as in 1965's It's Gonna Rain, Different Trainsmarks a watershed — not just for his own music, but in the broader effect it had. This is the piece about which Kronos Quartet violinist David Harrington has said, "Everything about Different Trains caused us to rethink our work."

    Juxtaposing the acoustic string quartet with melodic bits of taped speech and the sounds of train whistles and pistons churning, Different Trains grows first from autobiography — cross-country train rides Reich took during World War II as a child shuttling between separated parents — which he contrasts with the horrors that train rides forced upon fellow Jewish children his age in Europe.

    Entirely fitting for the somber anniversary on which this concert falls, the performance concludes with Reich's anxious, questioning WTC 9/11, a piece that echoes the architecture of Different Trains in his use of "speech melody." Here, the voices we hear are witnesses to Sept. 11 — ranging from NORAD air-traffic controllers and New York firefighters responding to the chaos on that morning to interviews taped years later with Reich's friends and neighbors in downtown Manhattan. The "speech melody" spins out from one idea, which Reich calls "a totally abstract, structural, musical idea. Whoever was speaking — whatever they were speaking about — their last syllable would be prolonged." And that sustaining generates a haunting elegy to lives lost and shattered, one that resonated far beyond the last notes of WTC 9/11. After the piece concluded, the live audience sat in total, absolute and absolutely eloquent silence for well over two full minutes before they burst into applause.

    With thanks to Q2/WQXR's recording engineers: Edward Haber (technical director and music mix), George Wellington and Noriko Okabe.

    Copyright 2021 Q2. To see more, visit Q2.

    Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.