Cheltenham Music Festival 2011 – Steve Reich Marches To Many Different Drums

Cheltenham Festival 2011 – Steve Reich: Drumming: The Colin Currie Group and Synergy Vocals, The Town Hall Cheltenham, 6pm, 3.7.2011


Kuniko Kato plays Reich:  Parabola Arts Centre, Cheltenham 3pm, 3.7.2011 (BK)

Written in 1971  and still his longest work to date, Steve Reich’s Drumming   becomes ever more rewarding with repeated hearings, especially when played by the Colin Currie Group and Synergy Vocals.  Despite being meticulously notated in a score that runs to some 29 pages and regardless of a duration lasting anywhere between 50 and 70 minutes depending on the mood of the moment, it’s the work’s peculiar sense of spontaneity between instrumentalists and singers that makes this music so compelling.   Drumming is  not small scale;  it needs no less than 12 performers and it’s  often extremely  loud but an additional source  of its enduring fascination is it’s call for  chamber music-like sensitivity  between all the members of the  ensemble.

The piece is divided into four sections with the first three centred around bongos, marimbas and glockenspiels respectively,  and with  the final section using the full ensemble. The voices and piccolo are used as supplements to  the percussion from time to time, adding variety to the changing musical  textures. As Colin Currie explained in his illustrated pre-concert talk, the piece is based on one drumming pattern, which is subjected to different treatments of phasing and aural contrasts as it progresses.  The music  is deliberately written in the same key throughout, so that listeners can detect its subtle transformations without being distracted by pitch alterations.

How the piece works is that a basic drum pattern is built up by  the gradual substitution of notes for rests, one at a time until no more substitutions can be made. At the same time while some  players maintain a constantly steady tempo, others move the basic pattern out of phase with them by  them gradually  accelerating their contributions  away  from the regular group.  The result is a sense of ever changing rhythms moving very gradually from fixed and recognisable pulse patterns through periods of ambiguity when more than one rhythmic pattern can be heard, through to new clearly defined rhythmic combinations. By the addition of  extra parts derived from the shifting patterns  heard  as the piece progresses Reich  also allows  particular elements to dominate the sound textures for a while before having them retreat again before more transformations emerge.   There are also  particularly clever manipulations  of sound textures that allow almost imperceptible transitions between the bongos, marimbas and glockenspiels  to take place. These  in turn generate overtones which add even more  complexity to the changing aural landscapes.

As usual with  the Colin Currie Group, the music’s impact is mesmerizing,  drawing the listener ever more deeply into Steve Reich’s masterfully skilful sound worlds –  the appreciation of which is enhanced by actually seeing  the  players perform. With what looks like telepathic skill, they take lines over from one another by relying completely  on the  tiniest gestures for  cues since they have no conductor.  While enormous physical and mental concentration  is needed to make the piece work, the players somehow manage invariably to  display  obvious enjoyment in the music and the music-making which is itself  extraordinarily beguiling. An uninterrupted hour of  music simply flies by leaving the  full-house audience  –  Colin Currie Group concerts are invariably sell-outs –  wanting more and applaudng wildly, such is the enthusiasm that this music and the ensemble’s virtuoso playing generates.

Colin Currie uses  amplification to add  power to the live instruments and to enhance the emotions coming out  through this music. While  this can sort out  the balance between the singers and piccolo and the percussionists and adds to  the immense energy of the  performance, paradoxically it also enhances  the  music’s meditative qualities. Time seems suspended and the music draws the listener into it it even more deeply. This time though,  even after allowing for the acoustic difficulties of Cheltenham’s Town Hall, the music was decidedly too loud on occasions,  especially during the glockenspiel sections where the high notes made the ear plugs worn by the players look  extremely attractive. This was the only quibble however in a truly spectacular hour of music making.
Kuniko Kato plays Reich –  Kuniko Kato Percussion

UK premiere of new Reich arrangements:
Electric Counterpoint 15’

Six Marimbas Counterpoint 17’
Vermont Counterpoint 10’

Hywel Davies Purl Ground 10′

As a prelude to the Colin Currie concert the  Japanese-American percussionist Kuniko Kato presented a concert  of  Reich’s music that allowed her to  perform   some of his multi-instrument Counterpoints on her own : multitracked recordings made her the soloist in her own ensemble. Six Marimbas for example — a transcription of Steve Reich’s original Six Pianos used a recorded track and new marimba solo that the programmed notes say  harnesses Reich’s fascination with the ‘psychoacoustic effects’ of repetition.

Sadly, despite Kuniko’s undoubted skills as a virtuoso performer on a level with the Colin Currie Group players, I found her presentation rather unsatisactory. Essentially  this was   because of the cognitive dissonance caused by  being unable to connect what I  was hearing  from the array of speakers surrounding her  with what I saw her doing on stage. She would strike a marimba for example and a whole orchestra of sound would emerge from the speakers, which after a while gave me  a sort of brain cramp.  The Colin Currie Group by contrast showed  that when performers’ actions and their sounds are all of a piece an extra dimension of pleasure is the outcome.

Bill Kenny

Note: Kuniko Kato’s recording of the music in this concert (Linn CKD 385)  is reviewed by Kirk McElhearn in MusicWeb International’s disc section. Click Here to read Kirk’s review.