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Length: 15 minutes
Orchestration: 2 piccolos, 2 flutes, 3 oboes (3rd = English horn), 3 clarinets, 3 bassoons (3rd = contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, percussion (2 vibraphones, 2 marimbas, bass drum), 2 pianos, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: September 3, 1987, Leonard Slatkin conducting
Reich dictates precise spatial and temporal relationships for Three Movements. Marimbas, vibraphones, and pianos move to the front of the stage (the pianos also have an alternative placement to the conductor's left), as he explains, "because these instruments play constantly and supply the ongoing rhythm of the piece. If they were put in their usual position in the rear of the orchestra time delay between what the rest of the orchestra heard from them and what they saw of the conductor's beat would not be in sync. Placing them directly in front of the conductor enables the full orchestra to see and hear one unified rhythm direction." A similar concern with tightness of ensemble motivates his instruction that the strings be divided into two equal ensembles on the right and left: "The purpose here is to clarify the counterpoint between the two string orchestras; each group can bow together, and the listener can hear each group more clearly." Precision of placement is echoed in precision of tempo; that of the second is exactly half that of the outside movements.
The movements are played without a break, yet are clearly delineated by distinct characters. In the first, a simultaneous fast pulse and slow harmonic rhythm combine for a third effect: color. In Reich's words: "each gradual change in harmony is alternated in a gently overlapping way between the two string groups. This…may suggest the changing light as clouds move slowly across the sky, or, in musical terms, it may recall the middle piece in Schoenberg's Five Pieces for Orchestra, 'Farben' or 'Summer Morning by a Lake'…the remainder of that movement gradually moves from pulse to melodic patterns in such a way that it may be difficult to say when the pulses end and when the melodic patterns begin."
Yet another kind of relationship - autobiographical - defines the second movement, whose timbres and melodic shape come from Reich's1985 Sextet, in which, he recalls: "I used synthesizers for slow melodic patterns in two-part canon that seemed to suggest oboes and clarinets. Here one can hear those woodwinds along with quiet violins playing this material, supported by two vibraphones, bass drum, and low strings and winds." The resulting hypnotic quality gives way to interlocking dance-like rhythms in the third movement (which draws from both Sextet and New York Counterpoint): "After the upper voices of the orchestra have built up a two-part canonic texture the lower voices begin accenting this material so that it is perceived first as three groups of four beats each and then as four groups of three beats each. The piece is concluded with a…canon in which the subject appears simultaneously in two or more speeds [on] a rhythmic pattern found in the high bell part of West African music." The accumulated physical impact of the metronomic regularity of tempo across the movements makes the ending feel abrupt but not surprising.
- Susan Key is a musicologist and frequent contributor to Los Angeles Philharmonic programs, specializing in American music.