Steve Reich has always been at the forefront of technology while preserving his love for acoustic instruments. Three Tales is a collaboration with the cinematic artistry of Beryl Korot, and marries the worlds of historical events and Reich's minimalist and multi-layered combination of musics with the psychodrama of digital visual possibilities. Reich, in the liner notes, dismisses the idea that he is embracing new media while simultaneously scoffing at the "advances" of humankind as sensationalized by the news in today's manic society. Instead he is -- more than at any other time in his career -- telling broad-reaching stories with the full spectrum of his German/Jewish/African-influenced music, words, and image-driven scenarios that are burned in our brains, but never before in this particular light. The triad of accounts, which definitely act as a connected suite, relate to the horrific disaster of the torched Hindenburg blimp; the religious and vengeful connections between the Biblical tale of Adam and Eve, Hiroshima and the atomic bombs, and the invention of the two-piece women's swimsuit; and the first vestiges of artificial life created in contemporary times as represented by the cloning of the famous sheep Dolly. The accompanying DVD is useful in that it does enhance the audio backdrop, though as always with Reich's unique approach, the music can easily stand alone. "Hindenburg" (with "It Could Not Have Been a Technical Matter" on the DVD) starts with a dramatic, dancing motif on pianos, string quartet, and marimba, but phases into the actual sounds of sizzling and then eruptive thermite and hydrogen reacting. It's a macabre effect as vocal commentary and layered vocals become a news actuality.
The ten-part "Bikini" is an ever evolving piece, ranging from the statement "I watched it fly" to strings sighing; a probing, insistent chorale in mixed meters; a gigantic mushroom chorale; settled and apologetic strings; an implied march; the rhythmic noise of countdown; more strident strings; and a post-horror aftermath of shock, dismay, and indignation. Whether resolute or not, this 22-and-a-half-minute piece really sets one's thought process into tilt-a-whirl mode. "Dolly" has an insular feeling, with multiple commentaries from scientists on the vagaries, possible consequences, and unlimited possibilities cell division and multiplication might lead to in the future. There's a clear choral homage to birth, processed percussive statements of the "human body machine" turned faceless, phased and echoed audio images of Charles Darwin's theorems, the thought that "every creature has a song," and the lengthy concluding coda where technology is a constant of evolution, but to its detriment, turned into intelligent machinery as phased and layered notions of controlling robotics, cyborg beings, and ultimate immortality end with the idea that this is "bringing up a baby the hard way." Throughout this program, Reich's central musical themes are always present, either exploding, providing a triptych through not only his witty modern music but the linear path of life, or expressing self-doubt through a vision of both caution and bravery. The most reliable members of Reich's longstanding large ensembles are here, including percussionists Bob Becker, Russ Hartenberger, Garry Kvistad, and James L. Preiss, mainly on marimba and vibes. The Synergy vocal ensemble add all the theatrics possible, while veteran pianists Edmund Niemann and Nurit Tilles stand fast in their role to drive this music into the 21st century. Three Tales is yet another stunning accomplishment in Steve Reich's illustrious career, but these descriptions can never really do it justice. Please, when you purchase this item, take your time in watching, listening, and reflecting on how the human condition (in both its depth and shallowness) and its feats, tragedies, triumphs, and consequences still steadfastly allow us to retain hope and optimism for a better world.