The LSO Celebrates Steve Reich at Seventy-Five

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Steve Reich at Seventy-Five: Steve Reich (percussion), Neil Percy (percussion), Synergy Vocals, London Symphony Orchestra, Kristjan Järvi (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 15.10.2011 (CG)

Steve Reich: Clapping Music (1972)
The Four Sections (1987)
Three Movements (1986)
The Desert Music (1984)

The Barbican Hall was packed. The age range of the audience was noticeably wide – from teenagers to sexagenarians and a few beyond, and that alone demonstrates the huge appeal of Steve Reich’s music. It’s been like that since 1966, when Reich first formed his own ensemble and began performing the music that had grown from his extensive studies of Western music, Hebrew chanting, Jazz, African drumming, and Balinese Gamelan music.

He appeared at the beginning of the concert, complete with signature cap, gave a thumbs-up to the orchestra and then performed his Clapping Music together with Neil Percy. It is an engaging exercise in rhythm. The two performers clap a 12 beat pattern; one player then shifts the pattern by one quaver. When it has been shifted 12 times, the two players are again in unison and the piece ends. It was the perfect introduction to Reich’s musical thinking and appropriate preparation for the meatier items to follow.

Reich did not immediately take to the large forces of a symphony orchestra at the start of his career, preferring to work with small groups, and it’s not difficult to see why. Ultra-precise rhythms, tight ensemble work, and crystal clear textures are central to his thinking and more readily achieved with fewer musicians. When writing for orchestras, Reich needed to re-think the conventional Western orchestra. So, in The Four Sections, which came next in tonight’s programme, the strings are divided into two antiphonal groups, separated by two pianists who also play some electronic devices. The four sections of the title refer to the four movements of the piece, each of which has its own tempo and features a particular section of the orchestra; strings, percussion, wind and brass, and lastly the full orchestra.

Similar devices are employed in Three Movements, with the strings once again arranged antiphonally. As they pass short fragments between one another in the opening movement, Reich’s notion that the music is like the changing light patterns created by clouds wafting across the sky is certainly evident. The three movements are differentiated by tempo and mood changes; the second has darker textures and the third is more jazzy.

These two works were well performed by Kristjan Järvi and the LSO, even if a hypercritical listener would have ideally preferred even greater computer-like precision. But if Reich re-thought the composition and performance of music, it is also true that his audiences have had to re-think how they listen. Repetition, albeit ever-changing in subtle ways, is a key, even the key ingredient in this music, and if you’re not absolutely tuned in, the lack of conventional drama and interest can lead to – well, frankly, boredom! As I glanced around the audience, I saw quite a few slumped heads, and it’s to be expected – this stuff has a hypnotic quality. Or is there a more serious problem? There is no doubting Reich’s genius in formulating and developing his ideas, and there’s no doubting the sheer attractiveness of the music either – but I did find myself asking more than once if the style of this music has run its course. That’s partly due to the fact that composers with lesser gifts have latched on to the superficial nature of it and duly churned out ream upon ream of computer generated riffs for TV and film scores to the point that we’re sick and tired of it all, but it’s not the whole story. Some of Reich’s smaller pieces, Different Trains especially, or the opera The Cave seem to have far greater meaning than The Four Sections or Three Movements, and it’s curious that they were both composed after The Desert Music, another crucially important work. That minimalism – the tag with which Reich, along with John Adams and Philip Glass, was quickly labelled – had to develop was fairly obvious, and Reich has come a long way since the early beginnings, but these two works don’t really seem to venture much beyond what was achieved in The Desert Music. Perhaps it’s not surprising that he has now returned to smaller groups in recent works.

Anyway things definitely bucked up in part two. At around fifty minutes, The Desert Music benefits enormously from having a faster rate of harmonic change and a formal shape (basically A-B-C-B-A) which really works. There’s far more tension and drama here, and considerable variety in the orchestral palette. All Reich’s techniques are on display – pulsating rhythms, short imitative figures, oscillating chords, jazz-derived harmony – the lot. More importantly, Reich uses various texts by William Carlos Williams to suggest a combination of messages concerning our contemporary society, questioning its morality and where it is going. But why the desert in Desert Music? Reich was deeply affected by both the Sinai and Alamagordo deserts, the first for its historical importance in Jewish history, and the second because it is where the US stores its nuclear weapons.

The performance was terrific. Kristjan Järvi conducted with a firm beat and the LSO responded with the right degree of energy and with ever-sensitive dynamics. The vocal writing came off superbly well, with the ten amplified voices of Vocal Synergy effectively balanced against the orchestra, their parts, often reminiscent of jazz-orientated groups such as Singers Unlimited or Swingle Two, perfectly in tune. And when the composer reappeared he received a standing ovation, apt recognition that Reich is one of a very few composers who has genuinely changed the course of music history.


Christopher Gunning