Mosaic of Humanity Comes to Light

Steve Reich's aural and visual kaleidoscope touches on the patriarch Abraham

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.

``The Cave'' continues this practice in perceptive and poignant ways. As a whole, the work calls eloquently for Mideast peace by the very act of bringing Israeli and Palestinian voices together - in the videotapes, and in the overall conception of the work, which takes its title from the Cave of the Patriarchs in the West Bank town of Hebron, said to be one of the few places in the world where both Jews and Muslims come to worship.

Individual video pieces also contributed to the goal of humanizing all sides in the Mideast conflict. Asked for his thoughts on Abraham, one Israeli cheerfully identified the patriarch as one of his ancestors, reciting a family tree stretching from Adam and Eve through Abraham and Sarah to the speaker's own grandparents. Asked the same question, a Palestinian remarked that she mentions Abraham's name 16 times every day in her prayers. This sense of closeness to the patriarch made a revealing contrast with the first Americans interviewed - who responded to the question ``Who for you is Abraham?'' by mentioning Abraham Lincoln, a high school named after him, and Renaissance and mannerist art.

Played with exquisite precision by the Steve Reich Ensemble, the score for ``The Cave'' combines the piquancy of Reich's joyously religious ``Tehillim'' and the rhythmic drive of his early ``Clapping Music,'' yet didn't quite sustain the swinging sinuousness of his best compositions. There were a few moments as stunning as anything he has yet done, however - as when the syllables ``arch-er'' took on the unexpected elongation of a real archer drawing his bow, or when (as frequently happened) words of an ancient text appeared onscreen with the same rhythm as the musical beats accompanying them.

MORE important, the fundamental concept of deriving melody from spoken words - and not just any words, but words relating to core issues of the mind and heart - has possibilities that Reich is only beginning to tap. He has hit upon the startling idea that every word we speak, if it is uttered with humanity and sincerity, may be thought of as a sacred text; and he has acted on this by setting such minitexts to music as sweet and celebratory as that of any hymn. He is among our greatest and most inspired composers.

* ``The Cave'' is set up as a video installation at the Whitney Museum of American Art through Nov. 28; Elektra/ Nonesuch will release a recording of the score in 1994. The Next Wave Festival continues at BAM through Dec. 4.

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