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on 15 September 2010
Double Sextet deservedly won Steve Reich a Pulitzer Prize in 2009 and it's superbly served by this premier recording by Eighth Blackbird, for whom it was commissioned. Reich's late style is at its best here - freer, more energetic and warmer than almost any piece of his in the last ten years, and the interplay of the two sextet parts (both recorded by 8bb) is a delight to bring a smile to any listener's face. It's as joyous as the Variations for Vibes, Pianos and Strings (my other candidate for Reich's best piece of the last decade) and as full-throated as You Are Variations but without that work's revisiting of former glories. This is all new. A really fantastic piece and one that we should all hope and trust will enter repertoire for many years to come.

Interestingly the recording heard by the Pulitzer jury was from a fully-live performance in which Eighth Blackbird partnered with the Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble, rather than playing against a recorded version of themselves. For a while after the announcement of Reich's Pulitzer win the full performance was available online via Reich's publisher, Boosey & Hawkes and I'd urge anyone who gets the chance to give it a listen. It's an instructive companion to this studio version; the sheer energy of the live playing and the obvious joy the two sextets took in each other comes out of your speakers like a fresh, stiff breeze and offers a subtly different, slightly more swinging, take on the piece. Definitely a candidate for its own release, if only as a download, should any of the parties involved be so willing.

The second piece on this release, 2x5, sadly seems fated to achieve only footnote status in Reich's career. It's certainly by no means up there with the best of his compositions but the chief problem, to my mind, is the choice of instrumentation. Electric guitars and basses backed by rock drums just don't seem to fit his style, at least on the evidence here and especially in this noodling piece. Each has appeared before in Reich - drums in Three Tales and guitars in Electric Counterpoint - to better effect, but here the sound is thin and lacklustre and the energy levels sedate. I confess the heart sinks a little each time the rather lifeless percussion kicks in, not something I ever thought could be said about a Steve Reich piece. The third section, in which we at least get some pleasing interlocked melodies and riffs, offers the best listening - though even there I'd rather have heard acoustic than electric guitars.

One side note: My copy was supplied not in a jewel case but in a very basic cardboard cover with the disc itself slid into a pocket. That might be something you'd accept for a CD single but for a major, Pulitzer Prize-winning, full-price release from one of the stars of contemporary music it's pretty shoddy.

So good is Double Sextet, however, that the disappointments of 2x5 and the packaging can only really rob the disc of a single star. Know what you're getting but don't under any circumstances miss out on a triumphant addition to Reich's canon.
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on 15 September 2010
It gets 5 stars from me because I love Steve Reich's music and I enjoyed both pieces in equal measure.

All the music is very recognisable as Steve Reich from the last 10 years or so. I would say both pieces are a welcome return to an "easy on the ears" Reichian style. For me though the 2 x 5 piece is the easier to listen to probably because of the "rock band" instrumentation which suits the music well. Indeed 2 x5 is the natural successor to the beautiful Electronic Counterpoint from 1987, they would sit well together in performance (I imagine Bang on a Can have done exactly this).

The actual music in 2 x 5 doesn't appear as complex as Double Sextet although I don't know if that's the instrumentation or a deliberate ploy from Reich to make it more accessible. Certainly Double Sextet will have me listening far more to really grasp the piece and I imagine repeated listening will further my appreciation of it whereas 2 x 5 can be enjoyed immediately.

Some of the nuances of both pieces are probably lost on the listener because the pieces must offer so much more interest in a live setting. Both pieces involve one group of musicians playing along to another set of musicians, either live or recorded, and yet in a CD recording this is more difficult to hear than in a live setting, when you can watch the process unfold. To aid this process there is a left/right balance on the mix, but you have to focus carefully to work out which sound is coming from which set of musians. I suppose though that the whole point of this compositional method is to stike a balance between experiencing the groups together and also separately as they mimic, repeat, augment and enhance their contributions. Reich here is playing tricks on your mind again, it is great fun to listen to and try to work it out, and also great fun just to chill out and enjoy the sound as a whole. Typically you can thoroughly enjoy the music on both levels.
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on 16 November 2010
I think it is understandable that some listeners have complained about Reich's tendency to blatantly repeat ideas these days, though I think 'Double Sextet' is still a fine piece of music. It is snappy, exciting, emotional, euphoric even - a perfect rendition of the kind of ideas Reich has been exploring for a number of years now, but with slightly more surprising harmonic twists and turns than usual.

'2x5' as a composition is a little less successful to my ears, though the new sonics are a breath of fresh air (even if the musical ideas remain entirely similar.)

My main issue with this disc is the recording quality. Has nobody else noticed it? Is it just me? I heard excerpts from 'Double Sextet' back in 2007, and I couldn't wait to get my hands on a properly recorded disc of it. But from the second movement onwards, the piano sounds distorted. It's especially noticeable on headphones, and I doubt it's a deliberate effect - it sounds like clipping, and as far as I can tell no other instrument has been affected in the same way. I'm surprised this oversight has occurred, especially after the long wait, and I'm surprised nobody else seems bothered by it. The recording quality of '2x5' is also rather strange, though thankfully it isn't plagued by any unintentional distortion or clipping. It just sounds rather dry and weirdly mixed, and the panning is all over the shop.

Have another listen to the 'Slow' movement of 'Double Sextet' - when the piano notes hit, there is clearly some sort of distortion or clipping going on. Perhaps it is deliberate, or perhaps only my disc has the issue affecting a single instrument. But I am not being picky for the sake of it - it does greatly disturb how the piece comes across.
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on 30 October 2010
As a long time Reich fan this is very easy to get into and although it maybe doesn't have the immediate appeal of his music involving vocals it is classic Reich with all the familiar rhythms and structures. The performance is, as always, faultless. The 'eighth blackbird' ensemble was new to me, but their rendering of Double Sextet is excellent and Bang on a Can already have a well-deserved reputation on the contemporary music circuit which this simply serves to maintain.

Personally I have found myself more recently drawn to Reich's vocal music - the superb 'You Are Variations' being one of his latest and best - plus the older orchestral pieces such as 'The Desert Music' and 'Four Sections' - but the smaller ensemble work here grows on you with every listening and is every bit as impressive.

For those that might be interested, I found the guitar/keyboards/drums instrumentation on 2x5 reminiscent of the British artist Steve Martland, especially his 'Danceworks' (from the 'Patrol' album). So, if you like 2x5 you'll like Danceworks (and check out some of the instrumentation/rhthyms on the brilliant 'Horses of Instruction' release by the Steve Martland Band which is almost Reich in rock music form).
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on 17 September 2010
I never cease to be amazed by Steve Reich. The man must be in his mid seventies now and it's rare for composers to still be writing at that age, let alone producing energetic and motivically complex works such as the Double Sextet. His being awarded the Pulitzer in 2009 was long overdue for a highly influential musical career consisting of many landmark pieces, e.g. Music for 18 Musicians, Drumming, Tehillim, Different Trains. I'm happy to add Double Sextet to this list. The work begins with a piano riff that permeates sections I and III of the piece; strings and woodwinds entering with longer motifs that gradually phase shift and elongate, teasing each other harmonically. The relentless percussive piano part is interrupted periodically by more searching music where all gathered momentum is lost. As a criticism, perhaps some of these snatches of respite are sometimes too long and pointless. The final two minutes (or thereabouts) of section I are unique: there is greater harmonic momentum, moving towards darker and more foreboding music where the rhythmic piano part seems strangely submerged. Section II continues this trend of unease with wispy motifs weaving in and out of each other; the music listless. The brightness of section III is in abrupt contrast to II (perhaps too abrupt). Musically, III is a mirror of I but is more relentless. The latter half of III is a joy to listen to; pulsing, emphatic and vigorous.

2x5 is about as bland and unmemorable as Double Sextet isn't. The listener will definitely perceive musical similarities between the two pieces, but for some reason 2x5 sounds hollow and cheap. Bang On A Can's performance of the piece cannot be faulted however. Likewise, Eighth Blackbird's performance of Double Sextet is fantastic and demonstrates a really high level of musicianship.
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on 17 June 2011
In some ways this is the purist of all Steve Reich compositions. It owes much to his seminal work, Music For 18 Musicians, which is probably why it did not receive unalloyed approval from the critics. But more than any other of his works,it demonstrates his love of sound (which, in my opinion, is what sets him apart from all other minimalists). Every note is beautiful. Every passage possesses a Haydnesque clarity. Every key change is riveting. If I were to play a quintessential Reich work to someone who knows nothing about him, this is the one I would choose.
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on 9 July 2013
Double Sextet is a great piece, performed brilliantly. It uses just about every compositional device that Reich has deployed in his music for the last few decades - so no points for stunning originality - but it does it all at the highest level. But, as another reviewer said, my copy has a problem with sonic distortion in the 2nd and 3rd movements of Double Sextet. Kind of like hearing it on an old and worn out piece of vinyl. Not long after buying the CD I did try and pursue the issue with Nonesuch and got a reply saying they would look into it, but nothing further.

For whatever reason it would seem there was a "bad batch" of CDs that have this fault as I bought the download version which is crystal clear.

The second piece is enjoyable, but Reich's use of rock instruments is a little strange (only using the bass and snare from the drum set, adding an octave pedal onto the guitars). Apart from that though, it is a perfectly fine Reich FAST, SLOW, FAST kind of piece.
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on 30 November 2010
Very good cd from SR. Whilst it is of a high standard, as is all of his music it only gets 4 stars as his use of guitar, bass and drums is not as conducive to his minimalist style as marimbas etc. This is, though, worth buying for the Double Sextet.
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on 4 October 2010
Steve Reich describes the commissioning process in the liner notes to this new CD. His publisher wanted him to write a piece for Eighth Blackbird, but he initially refused: 8bb consist of one flute, one clarinet, one violin, one cello, one piano, and percussion. Reich said he couldn't write for such a lineup because his unison canons require pairs of identical instruments, as they have done ever since his earliest phasing pieces. He later reconsidered, and wrote this piece for live + pre-recorded sextet, giving him two flutes, two clarinets, two pianos, etc.

Therein lies much of the problem with this piece. There was never any question that Reich might try something new. Never a consideration that, perhaps, he could try writing a piece which, for once, didn't rely on unison canons. Or one which wasn't written in the form of a theme and variations. Or one which wasn't in three movements titled Fast, Slow, and Fast. Or one which wasn't built from duelling pianos playing block chords in an irregular pattern of 3 + 2 beats, with other instruments playing sustained high notes at dissonant intervals.

Double Sextet is a fine piece of music, and Eighth Blackbird play it brilliantly. But Reich breaks little or no new ground. If you own, or have heard, the You Are Variations, the Daniel Variations, the Variations for Vibes, Pianos and Strings, you do not need to buy this CD (unless you love all of those pieces, and cannot get enough of his music). If, on the other hand, you are unfamiliar with those pieces, and are looking for something by Reich to add to your CD collection, you might as well buy it because it's at least as good as any of the others. In this context, the Pulitzer Prize makes more sense as a lifetime achievement award.

2 x 5 is less good as a composition, but it at least has the benefit of having some interesting textures and instrumental colouration.

Steve Reich, just like Philip Glass, has found his niche, and discovered a system of composition which works for him. His music has always been about repeating patterns, but now it seems as if he is merely repeating himself.
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