Phases – The Music of Steve Reich: Quintessential Reich

Cello Counterpoint [London premiere]
Daniel Variations [World premiere]
Music for 18 Musicians

Maya Beiser (cello)

Synergy Vocals
Steve Reich Ensemble
Brad Lubman

Steve Reich and Musicians

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 8 October, 2006
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

This wonderful concert brought to a close the Barbican Centre’s “Phases” series celebrating the 70th-birthday of Steve Reich, the culmination of which was a weekend of no less than eight events plus various other associated performances in the foyer and elsewhere. This was, in fact, the only all-Reich concert of the weekend and it brought us up-to-date (with a world première) whilst also reminiscing with a work from thirty years ago.

Reich’s ‘Counterpoint’ pieces pit various instruments (to date, flute, clarinet, electric guitar and cello) against multi-layered recordings of the same instrument – though there is an option for live as opposed to recorded performers. I rather regret that the latter was not taken up throughout these concerts in which the clarinet and electric guitar works were also performed. Cello Counterpoint, written for Maya Beiser, has eight lines in total, seven of which are pre-recorded with accompanying images projected on a screen behind the lone ‘live’ cellist.

This is a darker work than earlier ones in the sequence, with expressive melodies, not unlike those of Hebraic chant and folk-music set against the insistent rhythms of the accompaniment. Interplay between the various ‘parts’ was effective, though the pre-recorded cellos were less audibly ‘present’ than the soloist was. I must confess to a dislike for amplified string instruments, since the resultant sound can be thin and become wearying to listen to. Nevertheless Maya Beiser gave an authoritative performance – in all her guises – and the piece certainly communicated.

“Daniel Variations” is similar in construction to “You Are (Variations)” heard in a concert given the day before this World Premiere performance, in that four movements are settings of four brief texts. It would be more appropriate to say that the voices that articulate these words are treated instrumentally as part of the overall texture. Reich has taken two quotations from the Book of Daniel and allied them with two from journalist Daniel Pearl who was kidnapped and murdered by Islamist extremists in Pakistan in 2002.

In this instance the four movements follow on directly from one another. The first movement concerns a question by Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon (modern-day Iraq) posed to the prophet Daniel about a dream he has had – “I saw a dream. Images upon my bed and visions in my head frightened me”. As the composer writes: “Right now it is unfortunately possible to feel a chill of identification with these words”. The answer, in Reich’s Daniel Variations is not provided until the third movement. And the composer provides darkly-hued music for this initial statement. Four pianos and vibraphones form the basis of the accompaniment, with bass drums, tam-tam, two clarinets and a string quartet in attendance.

The typically Reich pulsations underpin the Daniel quotation, and different sections of the piece are signalled by string canons which propel the music onward. The two tenors intone most expressively – indeed poignantly – “My name is Daniel Pearl” – later joined by the two sopranos. The biblical Daniel’s reply to Nebuchadnezzar’s dream – “Let the dream fall back on the dreaded” – finds an aptly ominous response in the music, though the atmosphere is lightened somewhat by the final movement in which Pearl’s wish expressed to a friend – “I sure hope Gabriel likes my music” – finds ready expression via ‘cool’ and lively rhythms. I found this piece – upon first acquaintance, obviously – most affecting. It was performed convincingly, and I hope it will be recorded.

In many ways, the revelation of the evening – in spite of the presence of two recent works – was Music for 18 Musicians. This took us back thirty years to the time when Steve Reich and his contemporaries were establishing the ‘minimalist’ language into the mainstream of art music. It might be said that this piece was one of those that made that happen, via a successful recording on ECM.

Hearing it live for the first time, I was struck by the sheer fecundity of invention. Melodic phrases repeat then change – via ‘signals’ from the vibraphone. Interlocking ideas and harmonic shifts all combine to produce a work of infinite variety, colour and sheer high spirits so that the term ‘minimalist’ might be considered a misnomer. This was a totally exhilarating performance – and an ‘authentic’ one, since many of the musicians playing were with Reich when he formed the ensemble to perform his works back in 1966.

To return to the sentiments of the final movement of “Daniel Variations”, Steve Reich can be assured that Gabriel and other beings – be they celestial or otherwise constituted – “like” his music. I have never before seen such a spontaneous – and instantaneous – ovation greet a performance such as Steve Reich and Musicians with the incredible Synergy Vocals gave of Music for 18 Musicians.

The Barbican has really done Steve Reich proud in these festivities associated with his 70th-birthday. Now, what plans are there for Philip Glass’s 70th next year and Karlheinz Stockhausen’s 80th in 2008?

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