Ulrich Krieger: Early American Minimalism: Walls of Sound II
Sub Rosa

Krieger's second Walls of Sound release features five 1960s 'pattern music' works by seminal American composers Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and Terry Riley, all of whom were determined during that decade to break free of perceived musical 'dead ends' like Serialism. Given their pronounced conceptual focus, these earlier works are more 'academic' than the composers' more audience-friendly current material (Glass's symphonies, for example) yet Krieger's album provides a thoroughly engrossing listen and serves a valuable historical purpose in exposing important music of this era to new listeners.

Three pieces are arranged exclusively for sax, with two others conceptual works. Sounding very much like an instrumental excerpt from Einstein On The Beach, the six saxophones in Glass's “Music In Fifths” (1969) maintain a constant eighth-note pulse throughout using circular breathing techniques. As with much of Glass's music during this period, the tempo and volume remain constant, making it a good example of what Krieger calls 'static music,' music whose slowly mutating patterns eschew conventional narrative or development. Lasting thirty-two minutes, Terry Riley's 1964 Dorian Reeds overlays patterns of Krieger's soprano sax swirls using delay techniques; the combination of dense saxophone masses and extended duration is potent and, yes, hypnotic. On Reich's economical “Reed Phase,” Krieger plays a single pattern throughout using two soprano saxophones, with a slight tempo difference between them producing the gradual shifts. In the conceptual pieces, blurred eruptions open Reich's Pendulum Music (1968) where microphones (eight in this case) swing slowly out of phase above loudspeakers to generate feedback tones. Unison sounds gradually mutate into call-and-response patterns and finally, when the pendulum slows, a hallucinatory gnawing drone. “1 + 1” (1968) is Glass's “Pendulum” counterpart, as percussive patterns are played on a tabletop amplified with a microphone; while of interest conceptually, it's the least compelling piece here.

It is a tad disconcerting to find these once-revolutionary works now presented as canonical 'museum pieces,' especially when they were once considered radical, even scandalous. Witness conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, an early Reich supporter, describing the scene (reminiscent, incidentally, of the infamous outrage which greeted Stravinsky's Le Sacred du Printemps at its 1913 Théâtre des Champs-Elysées premiere) at a ‘60s Carnegie Hall concert when he presented Four Organs: “After a few minutes into Steve's piece a restlessness began to sweep through the crowd: rustlings of programs, overly loud coughs, compulsive seat shifting, mixed with groans and hostile exclamations crescendoing into a true cacophony. There were at least three attempts to stop the performance by shouting it down.” Consequently, Krieger's evocation of that long-vanished era is not only dynamic musically but affecting too for offering a glimpse of a more innocent era.

(The quotation is from the booklet included in Steve Reich: Works, 1965-1995)

December 2004