Every get the feeling that you have seen or heard something that will live with you for a long time? It happened last night. Steve Reich (pronounced Reysh) played as one of the key shows of the ‘The Rest Is Noise’ festival which has been happening around The South Bank Centre. We were lucky enough to attend, and importantly, be sat in the centre of the audience. Obviously this isn’t normally that important at a concert but for music based often on ‘phase’ it is the perfect place to be.
The first half of the program was made up of four pieces – ‘Clapping Music’ from 1972, ‘Come Out’ from 1966, ‘Music for Pieces of Wood’ from 1973 and ‘Pendelum Music’ dating from 1968. Reich walked on stage with Colin Currie for the first piece, as ever wearing his cap, to be greeted by a welcoming and appreciative round of applause. ’Clapping Music’ was perfectly performed. Reich and Currie working together, nodding for change and delivering the tribal sound.
‘Come Out’ followed which is one of Reich’s tape loop experiments. I imagine many of you have heard his work in this field but to an empty blue(s)-lit stage the tape starts reciting one line, ‘I had to… like open the blues up and let some of the blues blood come out to show them’. From here it is loop and reduce. Much like a lot of his work it hypnotic and you find yourself somewhere else finding sound and rhythms in places that you’d never expect. He made this in ’68 which is a year before the first moon landing and time when Jimi Hendrix was still playing. Kind of puts it in context.
‘Music for Pieces of Wood’ was next which lays the groundwork for ‘Music For 18 Musicians’. It is performed on five claves (which create that warm wooden knock sound) which build on each others rhythm – building up and building down again. It could be drummers in Ghana – or in this case it can be five guys in coloured shirts on the stage of The Royal Festival Hall. Point being, as with much of Reich’s music, you feel the work relates to rhythm and life.
Perhaps my favourite part of the first half of the program was ‘Pendulum Music’ which I was totally unaware of. As Reich himself admits, ‘If it’s done right, it’s kind of funny’. Four microphones swing from a bar suspended above four speakers creating pulses of feedback in different phase. Two moving tightly together and two out of sync. As the momentum of the microphones slows the pulses get longer and longer. Watching four people letting mics go and then walking off stage is in itself a (humorous) act, but the music again is hypnotising and again for an art/music piece dating from ’68 is totally ahead of the curve.
The second part was ‘Music For 18 Musicians’, a piece which Reich developed for around 15 years before recording. Put simply if music was liquid it would sound likes this. It is like listening to water moving and flowing through different formations – still in places then moving. Momentum in place. It’s also human. The sound of voices in the mix. I’ve heard the ECM recording of the piece over and over again in the past ten or so years and it is one of those pieces that starts, grows and then shifts in a small subtle movement into something new. I’ve never seen it performed before tonight but when you do it is music totally in balance. Watching the musicians move and take over from one another on piano, marimba, xylophone, maracas and more whilst keeping synchronicity at all times was quite special.
The set up for the stage (I presume they do every performance for what I can see) is based around four grand pianos slotted together to form two wholes. In front of this sit the xylophones, marimbas and metallophone, five of these type of instruments sitting together though somehow they feel vey much balanced. The front third of the stage made up of the vocalists (four in total) the clarinet and bass clarinet and the violinist and cello. The front third (as we’ll call them) sometimes act as a whole, sometimes one with one or maybe two of the others, moving throughout the piece. Interspersing short movements in sound. The second part of the musicians work together with the pianos providing an ever moving backbone slipping through phases as the piece moves on. The underlying is that this thing flows. It flows in a way that pieces of music don’t generally. If you like ‘E2-E4’ then this is its dad. This is the boss of that piece and I am totally aware that I sound like my fifteen year old son here but this is music that produces child like amazement. This is ‘E2-E4’ refined and reformed in a classical format.
I met Steve Reich once as my friend interviewed him. I actually stayed behind and asked for his autograph as he felt that special in this world and it felt like something I’d like one of my family members to find in one of my books when I’m long gone. This is someone that has created, time and time again, innovative music but also music that resonates with a wider audience due to its melodic and harmonious nature. ‘Music For 18 Musicians’ might be the greatest piece of music I ever see performed. It was that good. Reich’s music sits above, beyond and outside of the experimental world that it currently sits in. He’s a modern composer providing sound that accompanies life. It is music with a human pulse. If British artists Gilbert & George manage to take their ‘Art For All’ movement (making the arts accessible to everyone not just the select few) to the masses, I hope they take this piece with them.
We had this thing in our house for a little while that I might reinstate. We sat nightly, stopped talking, played a piece of music and properly listened to it. If you’ve never had the experience of ‘Music For 18 Musicians’ I suggest a fine bottle of wine, a great stereo and the piece in full. The rest is noise.