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Percussion concert crosses classical/rock boundaries

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Composer Steve Reich will field questions after show.

To Steve Reich, it's pointless nowadays to divide musicians into the traditionally oppositional categories of rock and classical. Especially when so many musicians today have skills to do the kind of boundary-crossing that's pushing all music forward, says the renowned composer by phone from his home in New York recently.

"(The label) rock doesn't mean too much now, but it is basically non-notated music. Classical doesn't mean too much, either, but (classical music) is mostly notated," says Reich. "And an increasingly large chunk of the trained musical community today are musicians who can go naturally back and forth between (playing) notated and non-notated music. That's where the future is."

Kind of like the musicians of So Percussion, the energetic, young quartet who on Thursday will play Reich's "Mallet Quartet" at the University of Texas' McCullough Theatre.

"They're percussionists who all met in (Yale University's) music school," says Reich. "But they're drummers, too. It's not about technique, but it's more about attitude."

Reich — who often is cited as one of a handful of composers who can rightly claim to have shaped the course of 20th-century Western music — will be on hand for Thursday's concert and will participate in the post-performance talk-back. So Percussion is giving "Mallet Quartet," a 20-minute piece for two marimbas and two vibraphones, its United States premiere on their current tour.

(The last time Reich was in Austin he was treated like a rock star, no matter how he defines his own music. In 2008, music publisher Boosey & Hawkes sponsored a showcase on the composer's music during SXSW that featured So Percussion and other musicians. Anecdotal accounts told of young groupies following Reich on the streets of downtown Austin after the capacity-crowd show.)

So Percussion member Jason Treuting echoes Reich's definition of today's nondefinable musicians. "For me, I think I've been working backward from Pearl Jam and Stravinsky," says Treuting of his musical development. "I think, like many percussionists, I started out playing in rock bands when I was a kid and then learned the (classical) canon when I got to music school."

A part of that canon for the 32-year-old Treuting, was, of course, Reich's music.

And Reich, 74, acknowledges that there's a certain kind of karma — or artistic justice, perhaps — in watching young musicians such as the Brooklyn-based So Percussion, who were raised on his music, now premiering his music.

For a long time, there was nothing canonical about Reich's music. His career grew neither from academia nor from the world symphony orchestras but rather in the burgeoning experimental art scene of 1960s New York. (He only just received the Pulitzer Prize in 2009, and while he was genuinely pleased, he did comment that the Pulitzer committee was "political.")

Born in New York in 1936, Reich studied philosophy first before heading to Juilliard and, later, studying composition at Mills College in California. As a teen, he played jazz drums and he often cites the music of Charlie Parker, Kenny Clarke and Miles Davis as major influences. Simultaneously, Reich says in his unmistakable New Yorker accent, an encounter with Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" and Bach's Fifth Brandenburg Concerto when he was just 14 also marked a turning point in his musical awareness.

By the mid-1960s, Reich was settled in downtown Manhattan. His experiments with tape loops to create phasing patterns — the effect of which sounds like two repeating instruments shifting in and out of unison — arguably prefigured the rise of hip-hop decades later, especially "It's Gonna Rain" (1965), in which Reich sampled the recorded speech of a street preacher. (Ambient music producer and experimental rocker Brian Eno said "It's Gonna Rain" inspired his own career.)

Reich's studies of Balinese gamelan and West African drumming led to polyrhythmic percussion compositions from the early 1970s like "Drumming" and also "Clapping Music," which consists of two pairs of hands clapping.

Despite the experimentations with prerecorded music and sound, Reich's music has always remained tonal and rhythmic. His output of the past decade or so has seen Reich veer somewhat away from prerecorded sounds and more toward purely instrumental works such as "Mallet Quartet."

And yeah, he loves that musicians such as those in So Percussion have grown up on his work as much as they've grown up on rock 'n' roll.

"They're playing the music they love," Reich says. "Bring it on."

jvanryzin@statesman.com; 445-3699