Music for 18 Musicians
Bang On A Can & Talujon Percussion Quartet [Sextet]
Synergy Vocals & London Sinfonietta [Music for 18 Musicians]
Steve Reich (piano and clapping)
Mark Stewart (electric guitar) [Electric Counterpoint]
David Cossin (clapping)
Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Saturday, October 31, 2009
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When Steve Reich completed Music for 18 Musicians in 1976, music was in the grip of composers seemingly intent on turning their back on tonality. In such a context, writing an hour-long piece that sits in the surety of D major for much of its duration would seem a foolhardy exercise, bound for the domain of pop music rather than classical audiences.
Yet you only have to see the reaction this piece gets in a performance to realise that here is a truly revolutionary work, daring in a far more adventurous way than those looking to break with tonality. Lesser composers writing for a combination of four pianos, four vocalists, six percussionists, two clarinets, violin and cello would surely crowd the texture ruinously. Yet with Reich’s keen ear and sense of direction the vision unfolds in the form of slowly germinating melodic threads, and the effect is thrilling and utterly captivating as the communal gathering of musical material is played out.
This performance captured Reich’s free-spirited spontaneity of composition, delighting in the melodic threads as they unravelled. The composer himself sat at the piano to the back of stage right, nodding appreciatively as the music progressed before making his own incisive contributions. The unbroken span makes superhuman demands on all the musicians – here with an extra percussionist making the numbers up to nineteen – by asking them to play melodic loops of considerable kinetic energy to almost military precision. In doing this they were led in turn by percussionist David Hockings, clarinettist Timothy Lines, and central percussionist Alex Neal, signposting the changes in musical material with the metallophone. Each of the nineteen musicians contributed to the glorious layers of sound, and it was clear each was enjoying the experience. With a playful rasp of the bass clarinets forming the undercarriage to the sound, the sharp percussive input from the pianos was clearly defined and thrilling to follow.
The balance of sound was a little awry, however, with the singers underdone by the amplification, and the central vibraphone, signposting each of the crucial melodic and harmonic changes, could also have been louder. Yet the thrilling energy and full sound were fully and beautifully conveyed, so that even after an hour, when a sense of euphoria had been reached, the instinct was for the piece to continue.
The first half illustrated why Reich has become so influential for pop-, and specifically electronic-, music writers. Electric Counterpoint, which pits 10 pre-recorded tracks by the guitarist against one live track, was beautifully performed by Mark Stewart, who subtly emphasised his own line with a little extra vibrato here, a little leaning on the phrase there. The dance-like character of the sections was sustained, the lights suitably dimmed to suggest the nocturnal nature of the piece.
David Cossin and Reich himself began with the short Clapping Music, a four-minute piece in which a short rhythmic thread is performed by both clappers, the first remaining constant while the second keeps the same rhythm but goes pointedly in and out of phase. The relatively dry acoustic and amplification helped a well-defined performance.
The sizeable Sextet concluded the concert’s first half in a virtuosic but sensitive performance from Bang On A Can, with whom Reich has worked closely for several years. The piece dates from 1985, and though it lasts nearly half-an-hour is cast in a semi-rondo form, its sections more obviously signposted than Music for 18 Musicians. The central section is one of the slowest pieces Reich had written up to that point, with bowed vibraphones bringing an unusual hue to the sound. The outer sections are full of energy, propelled by fast-moving marimba and vibraphone lines over more-distant synthesizer pulses, played with commendable control by David Friend and Evan Ziporyn. While the structure is perhaps less taut than the other pieces on the programme, this was nonetheless a vivid illustration of the influence African music has held on the composer.