Amidst the staggering array of commissions and first performances recently announced by the Los Angeles Philharmonic for its forthcoming centennial season, one work stands out in particular. Steve Reich’s Music for Ensemble and Orchestra, which will be premiered this November (and performed in London by the LSO later that month), will be his first full orchestral work since The Four Sections from over thirty years ago. Following that, Reich has been asked to write for a large group for the inaugural season next year of New York City’s The Shed. A recording of his recent pieces Pulse and Quartet (the latter performed by Colin Currie Group) has just been released on Nonesuch and no doubt a recording of 2016’s Runner is in the pipeline.
With this flurry of Reichian activity after a relatively fallow few years, it is a good time for a new recording of Drumming, enabling a revisit to this magnum opus of Reich’s early years. Drumming was the culmination of Reich’s use of his invented phase technique, discovered accidentally in his studio and first explored in two tape pieces, It’s Gonna Rain (1965) and Come Out (1966), in which synchronised loops of speech gradually decouple. The sonic results move from a slight echo to something approaching white noise. I was present at a performance of both at the Almeida Festival in the 1980s that received a mixed audience response, to put it mildly, and caused Reich to announce at a talk the next day that he would no longer encourage public performances of either. Reich then applied an approximation of this process to instruments and found it worked surprisingly well. Drumming, for percussionists and two female vocalists, marked Reich’s most extended and developed use of the phase technique, after which he moved on to other musical concerns. It also bears the influence of west-African techniques that Reich had studied at their source.
In Drumming the phasing occurs when a basic rhythmic pattern of twelve beats is set up (which runs in one form or another throughout) and one performer is designated to accelerate until he/she comes back into sync with the others but now on the next beat, producing a new pattern. These accelerations produce a passing disturbance, in the way a cable car briefly jostles when it switches to the next stretch of cable. Textural variety is provided by occasional but complete shifts of instrumentation – tuned bongo drums; marimbas with wordless vocalisations; glockenspiels with piccolo and whistling; and, finally, all combined.
In this debut release on Colin Currie Records (in association with LSO Live), Drumming is performed by Colin Currie Group, formed in 2006 for Drumming at the BBC Proms. Voices and whistling are courtesy of Synergy Vocals. Steve Reich’s own performers made the first recording in 1974 on Deutsche Grammophon and made a further version on Nonesuch in 1987. Because the number of repetitions of individual patterns is left (within parameters) to the musicians, the total duration can vary significantly, from fifty-six to eighty-five minutes. Currie claims Drumming as Reich’s longest work to date but that distinction surely belongs to The Cave. The Currie Group’s timing is close to Reich’s later recording. There are also versions by Ictus and Sō Percussion which I have not yet heard.
We can take virtuosity for granted in the case of both Reich and Musicians (I am referring to the 1987 take for comparison) and Currie Group. The former have the slight edge in terms of clockwork precision but I prefer the visceral quality that the latter bring to some passages, the second half of Part One and the race to the finishing post. The sonic modulations from one section to the next are more subtly achieved by Reich’s players, the re-emergence of the other instruments at the beginning of Part Four in particular is somewhat abrupt from Currie.
In a work with such heavy reliance on single timbres, the recording quality is even more important. No less than Brian Eno has criticised the sterile sound of Reich’s recording (I think he was referring to 1974). I find 1987 to be sympathetically captured but with a tendency to sound congested. The Currie recording is spacious yet clear throughout. However the imaging is problematic, shifting decisively to the left channel during Part Two and to the right in Three, simulating the direction the sound would come from in a live performance (if the instruments were not amplified). However I hear it as something approaching a lapse into mono in the two middle Parts and prefer the optimised aural vantage point of Reich’s recording. The tangle of overtones thrown out by the instrumentation of Part Three is however rendered more clearly by Currie.Colin Currie Records has ambitious future plans. My reservation about the particular approach to recording should not detract from the fact that this is a blistering account of Reich’s masterpiece and a spectacular first release for the Currie label. In September Linn will release Drumming performed by Kuniko. Assuming this will be a multi-channel SACD, it will be interesting to hear how the sound direction is handled.