As international Olympians recover from the physical strains of ski marathons and curling tournaments, Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra violinist Lisa Chong is preparing for her own test of endurance. On March 10, Chong will be performing Steve Reich's "Violin Phase," one of the most demanding and singular works of minimalism in the composer's catalog.
The task is daunting: "Violin Phase" requires Chong to flawlessly repeat a three-second pattern of notes for nearly twenty minutes, accompanied only by a recording of herself looping this same pattern. As the piece progresses, she will gradually speed up to create disorienting rhythmic dissonance between her variable live performance and the constant pre-recorded loop. Melodies blur as they enter the gray area between metrical beats. They dart into sharp focus while briefly interlocking with the loop's unflinching tempo, only to melt as Chong pushes forward once again. "Violin Phase" concludes when the melody has caught up with itself and the cycle is complete. The listener wakes up in the same place as they were when consciousness was suspended, struggling to accurately explain the blissful twenty-minute dream that just passed between their ears..
As heavenly as "Violin Phase" sounds through headphones, its mesmerizing effects will be amplified as it echoes through the halls of the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts. Steve Reich's composition is a featured part of SLSO's Urban Alchemy Concert Series, which focuses on modern composers. The upcoming installment will also feature an operatic piece by conceptual art mastermind John Cage and a handful of pieces by Meredith Monk, who will debut a new work with SLSO three days later.
Those surprised by our city's oft-ignored orchestra launching the world premiere of a piece by a renowned composer such as Monk have some homework to do. Over the past few years, the SLSO has performed at Carnegie Hall, commissioned work from avant-garde icon Glenn Branca and received the honor of "Best Contemporary Classical Album" of 2009 by iTunes for Doctor Atomic Symphony. Although words such as "symphony" and "orchestra" tend to intimidate casual concertgoers, the contemporary tinge of SLSO's Urban Alchemy Concert Series provides an exhilarating gateway drug to some of the finest art our Gateway City — and the world — has to offer.