When Chicago postrock band Tortoise began attracting international attention in the 90s, critics frequently discussed the band’s nifty adaptation of Steve Reich-style minimalism, particularly its use of hypnotic, interlocking tuned percussion. Tortoise’s “Ten-Day Interval,” from the brilliant 1998 album TNT, reconfigured his ideas for an indie-rock audience. At the time lots of underground artists took inspiration from Reich, and the following year Nonesuch Records released Reich Remixed, which featured electronic acts such as Howie B., Andrea Parkins, and Nobukazu Takemura digging into the composer’s work.
Reich’s influence has been important for so long that it now seems to be working along indirect paths as well as direct ones. New York percussion quartet Ensemble, Et Al. fascinates me, because while the group has emerged from the new-music world (which also gave rise to classic minimalism more than five decades ago), the swirling, propulsive tuned percussion on its new album, The Slow Reveal (Imaginator), channels a post-Reich aesthetic through a Tortoise-style approach. Not coincidentally, Ensemble, Et Al. recorded the album in Chicago with Tortoise cofounder John McEntire (prior to his relocation to Los Angeles), and he helps the group forge a driving low end that gives many of its pieces a rocklike vibe and poplike framing. Tortoise’s imprint is inescapable on much of the record, but Ensemble, Et Al. stakes out its own turf through the corkscrewing rigor of its compositions.
Some pieces on the album explicitly reference ideas that first excited Reich (the gamelan flavor on “Medal Meddle Metal”) or tap into rock sounds (album closer “Ellipsis,” with its pummeling drum-kit rhythm). At the start of the lengthy “Typewriters,” mewling long tones on organ meld with toy piano and clanging xylophone, and then the piece slowly opens up with a haunting, sparse piano melody and accreting layers of counterpoint, eventually building to an explosive release with conventional tuned marimba, vibraphone, and drums. On the opening track, “Au Cheval,” which you can hear below, a sparkling tangle of marimba gets extra polyrhythmic thrust from a loose drum track, clearly laying out the Tortoise influence—especially during the final moments, when the entrance of a synthetic bass line changes the complexion of the piece.
Ensemble, Et Al. performs Thursday night at Constellation. Eighth Blackbird cellist Nick Photinos opens, playing material from his recent solo album, Petits Artéfacts (New Amsterdam); he also collaborates with the headliners on a piece.
Ludvig Berghe Trio, An Unplayed Venue (Moserobie)
Henrique Eisenmann, The Free Poetics of Henrique Eisenmann (Red Piano)
LabField, Fish Forms (Bottrop-Boy)
Jürg Frey, Jürg Frey (Musiques Suisses)
Roscoe Mitchell, Discussions (Wide Hive)