Phases – The Music of Steve Reich: The Cave

“The Cave”
Conceived and developed by Steve Reich and Beryl Korot
Music by Steve Reich
Multi Channel Video by Beryl Korot

Marion Beckenstein (soprano)
Cheryl Bensman-Rowe (soprano)
Jeffrey Johnson (tenor)
Jonathan Goodman (baritone)

Steve Reich Ensemble
Brad Lubman

Nick Mangano – Stage Direction
Matthew Frey – Lighting Direction
Donna Zakowska – Costumes
Steven Ehrenberg – Technical Director
Jack Young – Video Projection
Duncan Edwards – Sound Engineer
Ben Rubin – Technical Designer
David Bullard – Computer Playback
Eric Hager – Assistant Lighting and Carpenter

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 4 October, 2006
Venue: Barbican Theatre, London

“The Cave” is a collaboration between husband and wife and might be described as a ‘video opera’, since filmed images are projected and accompanied by live singers and instrumentalists.

The subject matter is biblical. The Cave of the Patriarchs is located in Hebron on the West Bank, which the Old Testament relates as the site Abraham bought as a burial place for his wife Sarah. Abraham himself and other descendants are supposedly buried there as are, according to Jewish mystical sources, Adam and Eve. The cave is additionally of great religious significance to Muslims, who also trace their lineage to Abraham through his son Ishmael, born to Hagar, Sarah’s handmaid.

The cave is now built over and inaccessible, but remains an important place of pilgrimage and is unique in that it is the only location on earth venerated by both Jews and Muslims.

For “The Cave”, three groups of personages – Israeli, Palestinian and American are asked what the figures of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael and Isaac mean to them.

Their spoken responses are ‘mirrored’ by music that reflects the rise and fall of their speech. This is invariably given to a string quartet who then, more often than not, repeat the phrases – sometimes expanding and at other times contracting them – without the voices. This must have been a painfully slow process for the composer, but the results are undeniably fascinating – for a while.

Before, between and after the interviews are screened, passages from the book of Genesis (in the second act, the Koran) are set to music for the ‘live’ voices in varying combinations. The text is set syllabically and has a sense of the ‘automatic’ about it. The words are typed out via a computer and projected onto the screens, sometimes with French and German translations, perhaps reflecting the multi-national nature of the commission which gave rise to the work. Characteristic percussion, piano and, sometimes, hand-clapping provide the accompaniment to these sections.

During the second and third acts, the singers also ‘respond’ to some of the spoken answers, with occasional instances of banality as when one of the Americans, in response to the question about Hagar, says “the mistress couldn’t manage it” and the four voices dutifully reply with a close-harmony setting of the same words. It was during some of these moments that I was reminded of the original 1960s’ Swingle Singers.

The Israeli and Palestinian interviewees are evidently moreknowledgeable about the Old Testament people and associated events – the Americans much less so. “No idea” is one’s retort whilst another thinks the Abraham referred to is Abraham Lincoln.

So it is an interesting concept but, frankly, much too long.The first two acts made up the first half of this presentation and lasted well over 90 minutes. Act One (featuring the Israelis) itself is over an hour long and the problem is that, after a time, the ‘formula’ described above becomes predictable and the constant sound of the amplified string quartet (everything is amplified save bass drums and claves) begins to grate on the ear.

Although costumed, the singers do not present characters as such, but they do react to one another. They were all good, with Cheryl Bensman-Rowe doing her best to animate the proceedings. Tenor Jeffrey Johnson seemed occasionally less comfortable and secure than his colleagues.

The virtuoso Steve Reich Ensemble played with a sure commitment and Brad Lubman kept the live forces in perfect synchronisation with the visuals – no mean feat.

“The Cave” is rarely performed live and one can understand why. The technical requirements are formidable and I suspect that, like its successor, “Three Tales”, this Reich/Korot work will find its future on DVD.

Another potential drawback is the absence of any interpretative license, so closely – exactly even – must the live musicians be with the video.

However, despite its – for this listener – longueurs, “The Cave” is undoubtedly of interest on many levels, not least for it being the first of its kind of conception. And the tension and pace certainly builds in the thirty-odd minute final act, though it would be idle to pretend that Reich’s setting of the story of Abraham and Isaac has the kind of intensity found in Britten’s “Canticle II” or Stravinsky’s cantata.

Nevertheless, it was right and proper for “The Cave” to have been featured as part of the Barbican’s “Phases” celebration of Steve Reich’s 70th-birthday.

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