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.
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.