About this Piece
Length: c. 14 minutes
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances
The title of Steve Reich's 1999 Triple Quartet informs us not only of its instrumentation but also of the central role mathematical relationships play in shaping the music. "I knew I wasn't going to write for one string quartet because I'm not interested in one string quartet. For me, it doesn't have enough multiples of the same instrument. Where's the second viola and second cello?" recalled Reich in a 2000 interview. Enlarging the ensemble to three quartets (originally, two were pre-recorded) allowed Reich an exponentially greater number of opportunities to create and manipulate interlocking relationships. His primary aesthetic inspiration, however, derives from a conventionally-scored masterwork: the fifth movement of Béla Bartók's Fourth String Quartet. "Bartók can get more going in one string quartet than I can with three, but nevertheless, I was saying to myself when I wrote this, 'Wouldn't it be great to keep that energy going?'" The arrangement we hear in these concerts (for 3 ensembles of 12 each) keeps the tight timbral profile and forward drive of the original.
Responsibility for "keeping the energy going" falls most obviously to rhythm, but Reich's signature minimalist use of pared-down, repetitive motives allows for a great deal of interplay among the various musical elements. As in the Bartók movement that inspired it, beginning repeated notes put laser focus on the rhythmic relationships, as each quartet pursues an independent rhythmic path. Energy is also created through the transformation of melodic material, from single notes to brief motives then to melodies with a distinct Eastern European ethnic shape, simultaneously evoking Bartók and Reich's Jewish heritage. As the rhythmic and melodic motives combine and recombine in ever-shifting patterns, the relationships seem to expand from arithmetic to geometric, their cumulative effect a rotating musical cube. The harmonic treatment reveals the influence of Reich's recent introduction to Alfred Schnittke: "It was as if he was pushing me to thicken the plot and particularly the harmonic language." He translated this into a harmonic framework based on a series of minor chords separated by thirds; as Reich says: "When you modulate in minor thirds you don't really have a sense of harmonic movement. You do, however, get a feeling of freshening up the atmosphere because you are changing key." First, each harmonic section is presented in a different meter, after which the harmonic cycle is repeated with asymmetrical changing meters within each section.
Though they are played without a break, sudden changes clearly mark the movements. In the second, a sinuous melody in E minor spins out over sustained accompaniment. Both melody and its call-and-response treatment suggest Jewish cantillation. The atmosphere is mesmerizing, yet there is still a sense of fresh energy from harmonic changes, as the mathematical relationships seem to create a kind of suspended musical animation. The third movement returns to the propulsive repeated notes and the harmonic progression of the first, creating large-scale structural symmetry even while the relative length of the movements - each shorter than the previous - creates a large-scale sense of acceleration. Like Bartók, Reich is a master of generating complex formal relationships that never, however, obscure the listening experience. In his own words: "Triple Quartet is a completely musical piece, and perhaps that was partly why the energy is so strong and so good…. I think it's a great piece. I'm very, very pleased with it."
- Susan Key is a musicologist and frequent contributor to Los Angeles Philharmonic programs.