Review of Steve Reich: Electric Counterpoint by Daniel Lippel, New Focus Recordings, 2016
Is there an icon for contemporary electric guitar music? I really think so. That icon is Electric Counterpoint. There are a lot of fantastic editions, including the first one, played by Pat Metheny. Over the years this has become a true icon. What makes Daniel Lippel’s version so interesting? He uses a very special perspective. Reich has found much inspiration in the music of Africa during his career. Lippel, on the other side, was attracted by the opportunity to explore the connections between Reich’s pieces and the African music that inspired them.
“My initial approach was largely based on some superficial characteristics I associated with certain African musical traditions. I felt that a version of Electric Counterpoint that emphasized metric duality (specifically the simultaneous rhythmic contextualization of a passage of music in both duple and triple meter), and timbral heterogeneity might begin to capture the spirit I was hoping for. Luck would have it that amidst the planning period for the recording sessions, my path crossed with South African born ethnomusicologist and composer Martin Scherzinger. Among his areas of scholarly and artistic interest is examining examples of how Western composers have integrated African musical material into their work. Martin was working on a paper on Reich’s Electric Counterpoint just at the time we met. He supported my feeling that metric duality and diverse timbres might begin to illuminate the African roots of the material. I learned from Martin about the original source for the canonic material from the opening movement of the work. It is taken from a traditional piece associated with adolescent initiation rites for large horn ensemble by the Banda-Linda peoples in Central Africa.”
The meeting with the ethnologist and composer Martin Scherzinger allows him to deepen Electric Counterpoint’s exotic roots and to work on new rhythmic cells: “We also added several other elements to the studio process in the hopes of connecting the piece to its roots. A few of the guitar parts include preparations on the strings that suggest other plucked string instruments including the African lamellaphone, and lend a more percussive timbre to the texture. For the passages involving pulsating repeated block chords in individual parts, we divided the chords into three-note oscillating patterns to produce an internal ternary rhythmic grouping juxtaposed over the prevailing meter (for example, repeated C major block chords in one part became three layered divisi parts, each repeating a three note cell, C-E-G, the next E-G-C, and the last, G-C-E). For the repeated rhythmic cycle in the second movement (which Reich notates as a 3/4, 5/8, 4/4 repeated passage), I played multiple contrasting metric orientations in different parts, with a concluding “correction” to account for the nineteenth eighth note in the passage (for instance 6/8, 6/8, 7/8, or four 2/4 bars plus a 3/8). The intended result is a more linear texture that highlights the unique contour of this rhythmic cycle without internal mixed meter interruptions of the rhythmic feel.”
This unorthodox approach generated a new version, with greater dynamics flowing like a live performance and offering a new sound version of the piece. At the same time this version transmits reverence both for the original version and for the traditional musical culture to which it refers. It may be risky to claim to take influence from an indigenous musical culture that is not his own, but Lippel has managed to do it with great humility. Electric Counterpoint is a remarkable piece that touches and crosses so many musical and cultural connections. As in every great piece of music, Electric Counterpoint rewards many different interpretations, and this new interpretation has brought new enthusiasm, giving us the opportunity to listen to this piece in familiar and new contexts. Daniel Lippel treats Reich’s sound as one of the materials of his art. Where art is a way to organize his considerations on history, on progress and on the relationships between these things and the single individual. The result is an irresistible combination of coldness and catchiness, time and counter-time.