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Steve Reich

An evening of music by High Priest of minimalism Steve Reich took place at Birmingham Town Hall on Saturday, performed by the Colin Currie group. Steve Beauchampé reports.

One of the most important pieces of 20th century classical music composed by one of its most influential exponents, Steve Reich’s Drumming formed the climax of a drumming day at Birmingham Town Hall (including workshops, demonstrations and talks), and an evening of live performance by a twelve-piece ensemble led by internationally acclaimed percussionist and 1994 BBC Young Musician of the Year finalist, Colin Currie.

New York-born Reich - a graduate of the prestigious Juilliard School of Music - was a pioneer of ‘minimalist’ music. At the same time that Lennon and McCartney were re-writing the rulebook for popular music, Reich and his contemporaries (most notably Philip Glass and Terry Riley) were doing something not dissimilar for the classical genre.

Though the likes of Luciano Berio, Edgar Varèse and Karl-Heinz Stockhausen had disassembled traditional musical structure, and with it melody, harmony and rhythm, in what might be viewed as an aural version of cubism, Reich retained most of those core elements (though replacing melody with patterns) but placed them in a new musical landscape, one where subtle changes of pitch and tone underpinned the evolution of each work and where the traditional big hitters of the orchestra such as strings and brass were almost completely sidelined, replaced by a multiplicity of percussion instruments (which, as tonight, is how Reich often uses the human voice).

Whilst it was easy (though lazy and erroneous) for traditionalists to dismiss the avant-garde experiments of composers such as Berio, Varesè and Stockhausen as unlistenable and tuneless, no such accusations could justifiably be aimed at Steve Reich and his minimalist cohorts.

As Saturday’s audience would surely testify, here was music as accessible and beautiful as anything in the classical canon.

The concept of phasing underpins minimalism. Each performer plays an identical rhythm, then one subtly pushes the tempo while the rest hold steady. Other players then create their own transitions, peeling off in different directions, whilst new players may join and add further variations (though the original idea often remains intact).

The effect of these changes is subtle, sometimes hidden in the labyrinth of sound, often imperceptible. The process continues so that the various rhythms and tempos either pull further apart or come back together.

The patterns thus created replace the melody and tunes central to most traditional western classical music. In the hands of a master such as Reich, these patterns are every bit as sublime as the work of Mozart, Tchaikovsky or Bach.

Three pieces served as an aperitif to the evening’s main work. First up, one of Reich’s most oft-performed compositions, Clapping Music. Featuring just two performers (including Currie), four hands and one microphone, the piece sees each player clapping subtly different - and constantly changing - percussive rhythms.

Performed at speed, it requires intense concentration, easy as it is for the players to be distracted and thrown off-kilter, both by the subtle shifts and phases of the score and the requirement to respond to the improvisational adjuncts Reich permits to be inserted into his pieces. No wobbles tonight though, both men are well drilled and co-ordinated.

Nagoya Marimbas follows, the duo now switched to marimbas (visually akin to large xylophones, and emitting a not dissimilar sound). It’s a bright, optimistic five-minute piece that warms us up for Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ.

Currie’s ensemble now expanded to eleven, including three vocalists, the eight males similarly attired with their collared shirts untucked, the female vocalists wearing green cardigans. The work requires marimbas, glockenspiels, a xylophone and a small Roland organ.

It’s a gorgeous, flowing piece that never stands still, the building’s excellent acoustics rendering the performance clear as a bell. This is a work for travelling to (there are comparisons with Kraftwerk’s Trans-Europe Express) so forcefully do its patterns and phasing evince fluidity and motion.

Following the interval it’s on to the night’s main event. Drumming was composed in 1971 after Reich had spent a period studying at the University of Ghana in Accra.

It’s a milestone piece both in his career and in the minimalist genre. Currie’s full compliment of twelve are now onstage (nine musicians and three vocalists). As has been so throughout the performance, marimbas are placed stage left, with eight bongo drums forming a line from front to rear in the centre of the stage, glockenspiels and xylophones positioned on the right.

The work is cast in four, seamless, segments, first bongos, then marimbas, then glockenspiels, followed by a finale involving all three sets of instruments. The entire piece can last anything from forty to ninety minutes, though tonight we are promised sixty.

Initially only four performers are used, but from the start a driving, pulsating rhythm is generated. Sticks, rather than human hands, are feverishly assaulting the bongos, and the beat they create is one that underpins the entire work.

There’s an analogy with aspects of some improvisational jazz at play, with performers exploring sounds which, though tethered to the original rhythm, stray some distance from it (the composers’ score controls the space in which they travel but allows a degree of latitude, hence the varying lengths of the work in live performance).

A standard practice in minimalist music is that at any given point there will be a ‘lead’ player controlling this improvisation, though the specific individual can change throughout the course of the work.

Four soon becomes eight (bongo players that is), then, twenty minutes in, the pounding, trance-like Afro-beat is replaced by the brighter acoustics of the marimbas.

Soft as ice tinkling in a glass of champagne to begin with, but not for long; with nine players crowding around just two instruments the subtle facial nods and cues of the performers are essential both for musical communication and probably to ensure that no one’s hand gets thwacked by a stray mallet!

The vocalists have joined in now, their input forming a percussive addendum to the music rather than any discernable lyricism. Round the stage we go, and now it’s the glockenspiels’ turn.

A higher pitch than the marimbas, almost like wind chimes, the momentum builds again after a quieter interlude, with piccolo accompaniment from soloist Roland Sutherland. Somewhere, Reich’s original rhythm is still discernable, but his notation and the spirit of Currie’s charges have taken us to its boundaries.

Finally, each instrument and each performer is engaged; it’s cacophonous yet highly structured, the music’s rich patterns creating spellbinding aural shapes clearly picked out by the building’s excellent acoustics.

After almost exactly an hour, a conclusion is reached: on record a period of silence would naturally follow, a chance to catch your breath and reflect.

Tonight, it is just applause, from a thrilled audience many of whose musical horizons have just been expanded a little further…and how pleasurable the journey was.



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