Steve Reich: Drumming at Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Steve Reich: The Colin Currie Group, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 8.4.2011 (CG) 

Steve Reich: Drumming


Reich wrote Drumming in 1970/71. It is one of a considerable number of his works to feature percussion instruments – not surprising because rhythm lies at the heart of his thinking. More particularly, it is the transformation of rhythmic patterns that fascinates Reich, and his processes are richly evident in Drumming, which, since his first published opus is dated 1966, is a relatively early work. It was to be another four years before he wrote Music for Eighteen Instruments, and thirteen years before he wrote The Desert Music for chorus and orchestra. It was the last of his works to utilise the idea of “phasing,” whereby two players start in unison, but one accelerates so that they are a beat or more apart. He conceived the work after visiting Ghana, where he studied African music, especially that of the master drummer, Gideon Alorwoyle.

Reich’s music is at the epicentre of the “minimalist” school. His music has been extraordinarily influential, breeding an army of composers using aspects of his style or even frankly aping it. You hear his influence not only in concert works by others, but in film and TV scores by composers who cotton on to the more obvious facets of Reich’s music – rhythmic drive, endless repetition of short phrases, and harmonic simplicity. Yet nobody does it quite like Reich, and that’s because his work has far more to offer than its superficial aspects. It’s as if he has rethought contemporary music, and it’s interesting to note what’s absent; gone are soaring melodies, gone is harmonic direction in the more conventional sense, and in fact gone are most of the features of Western music as we’ve known it. Instead we are left with propulsive rhythms largely derived from Balinese and African sources, and a use of instruments capable of weaving the tangled patterns Reich loves to create. The results are undeniably attractive, and Reich, together with John Adams (with whom Reich is still often unhelpfully linked – they have become very different composers) remains one of a handful of contemporary composers able to fill concert halls – no mean achievement.

Reich says that the four sections of Drumming can be performed separately, but it is undoubtedly best to hear the whole piece performed continuously, as it was tonight. There are five instrumental groups. The main three of these are bongos, marimbas, and glockenspiels. There are two singers who echo the percussion notes sometimes, and a piccolo/whistle player. The first section begins with a simple beat from the bongos, which gradually becomes more complex as more bongo players join in. The second part, flowing from the first, features the marimbas, and the third the glockenspiels. The music becomes simpler and simpler until only one glockenspiel remains, and then the final section is scored for all three main groups, and becomes extremely frenetic.

This music demands virtuosity of the highest order. Reich himself has attended performances of the Colin Currie Group, has thoroughly approved, and I’m not surprised! I thought the performance by all concerned was absolutely astonishing. The nine percussionists, dressed in coloured shirts, stand at the side of the stage when not playing, then move to their instruments and join in when it’s their turn. They all play with rapt attention, some moving to the slowly changing beat of the music, others remaining composed and dignified. There is tremendous interplay between them – concentration is absolute, and it has to be because one false note or misplaced rhythm could wreck the whole performance. The female singers and piccolo player stand at the back of the stage, and join in quietly as required. They are amplified, but are nevertheless sometimes virtually inaudible – presumably this is because they are required to be part of the overall texture rather than a prominent feature.

It is quite pointless listening to Reich’s Drumming in the way you listen to most Western classical music; you have to adapt. The piece’s length can alter substantially from performance to performance, because certain patterns can be repeated many times at the performers discretion – tonight it was about eighty minutes in duration. Because repeated patterns sometimes go on for a long time, a certain hypnotic effect results.  You could even fall asleep during some of the softer marimba or glockenspiel passages, but if so you would be missing how the music develops, and it’s better to stay totally involved if you can. Nevertheless, time passes at a strange pace; this is a long piece which doesn’t feel long at all, and I for one would have listened to it all over again. Because it’s an endurance test for the percussionists, I would not, however, immediately wish it on them!

“Drumming” will also be performed by the same group in Bristol’s Colston Hall (May 11th), Reading Concert Hall (June 12th) and at the Cheltenham Festival (July 3rd). Do catch it if you have missed it so far.

Christopher Gunning