SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

“Kuniko Plays Reich” = STEVE REICH: Electric Counterpoint; Six Marimbas Counterpoint; Vermont Counterpoint – Kuniko, percussion – Linn

A mixed experience, but Kuniko is quite a percussionist.

Published on June 23, 2011

“Kuniko Plays Reich” = STEVE REICH: Electric Counterpoint; Six Marimbas Counterpoint; Vermont Counterpoint – Kuniko, percussion – Linn

“Kuniko Plays Reich” = STEVE REICH: Electric Counterpoint, version for percussion (arr. Kuniko); Six Marimbas Counterpoint, arr. for solo marimba and prerecorded tape (arr. Kuniko); Vermont Counterpoint, arr. for vibraphone and prerecorded tape (arr. Kuniko) – Kuniko, percussion – Linn Records multichannel SACD CKD 385, 41:06 [Distr. by Naxos] ***:

For me, Steve Reich is one of those composers whose work I can appreciate for its groundbreaking contributions without really having to like the music all that much. One thing in Reich’s work that seems to cast a shadow between the idea and the reality—to paraphrase T. S. Eliot—is the fact that though Reich wants to break down the barriers between popular and classical music and though his music has been highly influential among pop musicians, sometimes his pieces sound overly mechanistic and formulaic; the sparser the instrumentation, the more pronounced this effect. Maybe that’s in the nature of some of the musical sources Reich draws on, such as African drumming, but for me he doesn’t bring enough other dimensions to play in the music based on those influences. Again, for me at least, only in certain of Reich’s works is there enough of some added dimension to make the music worth the trip. Music for 18 Musicians and the dazzling Tehillim are good examples; in the latter the voices really add that extra dimension—I almost hesitate to say a human dimension. [Hear, hear! Music for 18 Musicians is the only Reich piece I really enjoy – though Different Trains is extremely moving…Ed.]

Thus I’m left a bit cold by Reich’s careful and detailed analysis of the music on the current disc and of percussionist Kuniko’s equally detailed narrative about her painstaking attempts to arrange Reich’s compositions without doing violence to the seeming absolute rightness of the originals. There’s something unintentionally funny about the dialog Kuniko had with Reich about her arrangement of Vermont Counterpoint, which causes her to anguish over how to handle the fact that “alto flutes are much quieter than regular flutes and piccolos are the loudest of all.” Her (rather obvious) decision to play the three parts at different dynamic levels averted the gauche alternative she originally considered, that of including a glockenspiel to play the piccolo part. Which would actually have been fine with me since then I wouldn’t have had to put up with ten straight minutes of vibraphone and taped vibraphone. What a philistine I am!

Anyway, rest assured that Kuniko’s arrangements, sanctioned by the composer, aren’t tantamount to the musical equivalent of painting a moustache on the Mona Lisa. That includes her recasting Electric Counterpoint—originally written for guitar and prerecorded tape—for steel pans, vibraphone, marimba, and prerecorded tape. Reich’s Six Marimbas, itself an arrangement of his earlier Six Pianos, was rescored by Kuniko for one marimba with the other parts overdubbed. Again, I don’t feel robbed of the benefit of hearing five additional marimba players.

The added variety of instrumentation in Electric Counterpoint, as well as the differences in tempo among its three parts—fast, slow, fast, a format that gives Reich’s music at least a nominal connection to the Baroque and Classical past—make it the most interesting work on the disc for me. I confess that I throw in the towel well before I come to the end of Six Marimbas Counterpoint. But despite my waggish comments above, Vermont Counterpoint is short enough, and sounds so different from the indelibly hypnotic original written for flutist Ransom Wilson, as to be worth hearing, even if I won’t return to it often.

Kuniko, who studied in Tokyo and the Netherlands and now performs all over the globe, is a great adept on her instruments. She has the stamina and inventiveness as both arranger and performer to pull off the feats of overdubbing that are required here. The recordings, in true surround sound, are impressive as well but wearing. Unless you’re a percussionist, being positioned in the middle of the battery may be an experience you’ll want to take in small doses. Also, the recording of Electric Counterpoint has some tape hiss that becomes very pronounced in soft passages; in surround sound it seems to hover right about the center of your listening area, adding insult to injury. [That’s surprising - wasn’t recorded DSD?...Ed.] So for me, this is a mixed experience to say the least, but thumbs up for Kuniko’s performing skills.

– Lee Passarella




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