Mosaic of Humanity Comes to Light Steve Reich's Aural and Visual Kaleidoscope Touches on the Patriarch Abraham

Article excerpt

THE Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) likes to start its annual Next Wave Festival with an event that carries the arts in some new direction. This year it did itself proud.

"The Cave," a music-theater extravaganza by composer Steve Reich and video artist Beryl Korot, made for an involving theatrical experience while it brought out issues of religion and politics that rarely receive such thoughtful attention in the glitzy world of high-tech aesthetics. (The show's brief run at BAM concluded last month. A different version is on display at the Whitney Museum of American Art.)

The stage for "The Cave" was dominated by a three-level scaffold carrying five video-projection screens. Interspersed with them were open spaces for live singers and an instrumental ensemble at floor level. As this arrangement suggests, live music and videotaped images were of equal importance.

Also treated with equal respect were other paired elements - spoken words and written words; documentary material and flights of creativity; carefully composed melodies and ones that sprang from the voices of ordinary people speaking their minds.

"The Cave" takes its basic material from videotaped interviews in which three groups of people - Israelis, Palestinians, and Americans - were asked for their thoughts on the Biblical story of Abraham and its relevance in the modern world. These interviews were not shown "straight," as on a TV talk show, but were broken into fragments and intertwined with ancient accounts of Abraham and his role as patriarch of the Jewish and Islamic peoples. Video shots of the contemporary Middle East also appeared.

The crowning ingredient was the music, which developed the technique Reich used in "Different Trains," his last major composition. As bits of the video repeat, spoken words and phrases take on contours of rhythm and melody that would normally go unregistered by the ear. Reich's score highlighted and enhanced these melodic traces by imitating and accompanying them - weaving the verbal and the musical, the literal and the figurative, the concrete and the symbolic into a seamless artistic tapestry.

This was pretty astounding stuff, and it became more so when one considers the actual content of the video material. In the mostly apolitical realm of contemporary classical music, Reich is one of the few major composers who successfully brings real-world issues into his work - most notably "Different Trains" and "The Desert Music," which touch on the legacy of fascist genocide and the madness of nuclear proliferation, respectively. …