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STEVE REICH: Electric Counterpoint (version for steel pans, vibes, marimba & pre-recorded tape); Six Marimbas Counterpoint; Vermont Counterpoint – kuniko, percussion – Linn
IANNIS XENAKIS: Pléïades; Rebonds – kuniko, percussion – Linn

STEVE REICH: Electric Counterpoint (version for steel pans, vibes, marimba & pre-recorded tape – kuniko, percussion); Six Marimbas Counterpoint; Vermont Counterpoint – Linn Records multichannel SACD CKD 385, 41:06 (Distr. by Naxos) ****:

IANNIS XENAKIS: Pléïades; Rebonds – kuniko, percussion – Linn Records multichannel SACD CKD 495, 60:00 (Distr. by Naxos)[4/14/15] ****:

The most amazing thing about kuniko and her espousal of avant-garde percussion in her many recordings are the videos available on YouTube in which she first plays the first three-and-one-half minutes of the second Reich work on the first SACD and then the tour de force of her duplicating not only the music parts of the complete fourth movement of Xenakis’  Pléïades (Peaux, which translates as skins), but also herself (visually) times six, playing the various tympani and other percussion.

kuniko is widely recognized as one of the most gifted and important percussionists in the world today. She studied under renowned marimba legend Keiko Abe and works today with composers and performers thruout the world in expanding the percussion repertory and its appreciation.  The first SACD, which was actually Linn’s best-seller of 2011, features three arrangements of earlier Steve Reich works, and she worked closely with the composer on all three. On Vermount Counterpoint guitarist Pat Metheny also advised, since he performed the premiere of the work in 1987.

In the Six Marimbas Counterpoint keniko plays solo marimba along with a specially-prerecorded tape of the other five marimbas. There are a dozen overlapping tracks to go with the live performance, and all worked hard on achieving the perfect surround and stereo mixes of the work. In fact, all three works have a pre-recorded tape played together with the live performances.

Other reviews of the album have not been entirely positive; some object to the changes from the sounds of the electric guitar or clarinet to the marimba or steel pans. Reich is not one of my personal favorites (except for his Music for 18 Musicians) due to his total embrace of the strongest minimalism of any living composer. However, with kuniko’s very precise technique and expressive performances, she has won me over with these Reich works, especially when accompanied by the visuals. No wonder it was the label’s best-seller.

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The new Xenakis SACD requires even more of a leap to appreciate. Neither of these contain music for everybody, just those who may want to expand their musical taste. The Greek composer-architect-mathematician (who died in 2001) pioneered works full of unusual notation and requiring virtuosic performances – some of them deemed actually unplayable. The big work here is his Pléïades, which is in four movements: Mixtures, Metals, Keyboards and Skins. In addition to the steel drums, vibes and marimba in this arrangement of the work, it requires the SIXXEN, which was designed by Xenakis himself and customised by kuniko, with 120 metal bars which are struck. The whole piece is a quite different sound world of great color and fantastic rhythmic complexities.

The profound musical intelligence of both Xenakis and kuniko come thru in this wild percussive work, but it will be slow going for many listeners. Watch the YouTube video of the last movement first; perhaps for some that will be all they will care to see, in spite of the other three movements not being shown, and the streaming sonics of course are nowhere near the 192K/24-bit of the carefully-engineered surround SACD.

—John Sunier

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