Somnambule - Writing About Music

Steve Reich
Phases – The Music of Steve Reich

Barbican, London, October 2006

Steve Reich is one of the greatest living composers: discuss. Don't worry, this review doesn't intend to approximate a grade-school essay, but Reich's status as a composer has gone from strength to strength and, alongside his contemporaries Philip Glass and John Adams, he's gradually made the transition from outsider to fully paid-up member of the contemporary establishment. What's fascinating however is that, contrary to the norm, his music has become more challenging, certainly less afraid of controversy, as the years have passed. Some composers seem to succeed in being effortlessly representative of their time. In listening to them, one feels an excitement and wonder at the way their music evokes the vast forces of contemporary life that ceaselessly operate around us. So it is with Reich's music. We recognise the tireless industry of our time in the busy repetition of his rhythms as well as its doubt and strife in its themes. In hindsight, it appears inevitable that the world's wealthiest superpower would birth composers whose music would powerfully articulate its history, whether that be Adams' Nixon in China, Glass's Einstein On The Beach or Reich's Three Tales, City Life, New York Counterpoint and so forth. The music's familiarity and apparent simplicity attracts us, its subtle changes sustain our concentration, but it's Reich's particular gift for an abstract, but very real sense of emotional engagement that keeps some of us returning again and again. This latter aspect is akin to a high-art sleight of hand. The patterns are simple, we listen and understand them to such an extent that they disappear, but in their wake is left a majestic sense of intention and empathy. Reich is 70 this year (he looks remarkably good on it) and the Barbican scheduled a week-long celebration that managed to cover all the bases and then some.

The challenging side of Steve Reich's work was apparent in the first of the three nights I attended, embodied in the form of The Cave, his multimedia opera-cum-theatre-performance-cum-documentary. I'd owned the recording on CD for a number of years, but had always found it disappointing when compared to its forerunner, Different Trains. The staged work was of particular interest as, except for a couple of still images, the CD version gives little sense of the visual aspect of the work. Despite relative familiarity with the piece, the experience was a distinct challenge and as the first section progressed a number of people left and the intrepid remainder of the audience tried to ignore one man's voluble grumbling before he too eventually strode out. It was possible to feel no small degree of sympathy at their reaction due to the almost nightmarish repetition that comprised much of the composition. Imagine Paul Hardcastle's Ni-Ni-Nineteen elevated to the heady realms of high art and stretched over 105 minutes and perhaps you’ll have some idea of the experience. Such a perfunctory summary is of course a gross generalisation and ultimately unfair, there’s much variety as well. The subject of The Cave is the continuing relevance, or otherwise, of Abraham, Isaac and Ishmael, biblical ancestors of the Arabic and Jewish peoples. While exploring the story and its themes, the work fails to reach any easy conclusions and that is very much in its favour. Its documentary approach succeeds in delineating the issues, but the revolving shots of the temple built over the original cave, accompanied by the becalmed drones of Reich’s music transcend any limiting of the narrative to mere facts and offers something that is ultimately mysterious for our contemplation.

The first half of the next concert, ‘Remixing Reich’, offered a full performance of Drumming. The composer, replete with trademark navy blue baseball cap joined his ensemble to perform the piece. The 1971 piece was composed after a period of study of West African music at the University of Ghana. The first of the four parts is arranged for four pairs of bongos, the next for three marimbas, the penultimate for three glockenspiels and the last for the whole ensemble. It’s a piece that is beautiful in its economy and which is also visually striking – there’s something almost balletic in the layout and the movement of the performers around the instruments. After the interval, we were graced with a remix of the 1994 piece City Life, a work that clearly explores the heritage of musique concrete composers Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry. The remix was undertaken by DJ Spooky accompanied by the Kronos Quartet and it proved to be an interesting endeavour that ultimately failed to build much upon the original piece. Perhaps most admirable was the chutzpah with which Spooky ultimately inserted a breakbeat, least attractive were the gratuitous visuals rewinding 9/11 and adding Man Ray’s Ballet Mecanique for no clear purpose. Next came Coldcut, the crew whose remix of Eric B and Rakim’s Paid In Full was once so influential. Their treatment of Music For 18 Musicians was a strange affair – for the majority of the piece they appeared to treat it with kid gloves, substituting a rather awful Jean-Michel Jarre-like electronic gloss on the composition. Only at one point – and all too briefly - did they question the work by introducing hesitation and uncertainty into its progress. Although they didn’t explore the idea any further, it was still (just about) worth hearing them for this alone – though the dreadful rave visuals meant I kept my eyes closed for much of the piece’s duration. Last act of the second half and by far the most wonderful were Konono No. 1 from Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo. The group, a surprise hit for Crammed Discs last year, sauntered onstage and with little ado launched into a drivingly mesmeric half hour of amplified mbira, voice, drums and other percussion. Their choice, however welcome, seemed a rather gratuitous acknowledgement of the composer’s debt to Africa and echoed DJ Spooky’s ambivalent recognition of Reich as “one of the foremost living composers... who is like a big sponge...” Even though quite a few people walked out and the setting of a classical concert hall was far from ideal (the music is like a challenge to resist dancing), this listener sat hypnotised.

The final night of the weeklong celebration, entitled ‘Quintessential Reich’ saw the performance of an audience favourite, a counterpoint and a Barbican-commissioned premiere. Cello Counterpoint was performed by Maya Beiser and included good use of video as Beiser was shown playing the seven accompanying lines to her lead performance. Daniel Variations, scored for 21 musicians including four pianos, a string quartet and four singers, alternates texts from the Book of Daniel with the words of Daniel Pearl, the American Jewish reporter who was kidnapped and murdered in Pakistan in 2002. The piece, though occasionally a little ponderous - at least upon this first listening – carried a notable emotional weight as the words “My name is Daniel Pearl” were sung over and over in the second and fourth movements. The last piece of this final concert saw the performance of one of the composer’s favourite pieces: Music for 18 Musicians (1976). Its pulsing 14 part structure with its cloud-like sonorities echoed by two clarinets and four female singers is difficult to forget once heard. Coming after the sombre subject matter of the preceding piece, it felt like a break in the clouds letting in revivifying sunshine. As with Drumming, the performers’ movements between instruments and the smiles on some of the musicians’ faces made for a delightful experience.

Difficult as it may be to deny accusations of cultural colonialism redolent of the Cubists’ exploration of tribal sculpture, such perspectives fail to recognise the argument for inclusion and recognition of the importance of non-western cultures made by some of Reich’s work, an argument that may be linked to the engagement with the folk musics of their respective countries undertaken by the likes of Janacek and Bartok. Steve Reich’s exploration of the relationship between simplicity and complexity, his essaying of the political, social and technical developments and tragedies of our times, his ability to attract a diverse audience while engaging them with challenging themes underscored by surprisingly deep wells of emotion make it difficult to deny the pivotal importance of his work. Phases – The Music of Steve Reich was a fitting and hugely enjoyable acknowledgement of this.

Colin Buttimer
Published by Signal To Noise