Steve Reich

Come Out
Pendulum Music
Vermont Counterpoint
Four Organs

Music Projects/London:
Tim Henty (maracas and musical co-ordination)
Julian Jacobson, Catherine Edwards, Julia Richter & David Owen (organs)
Nancy Ruffer (flute, alto flute and piccolo)

Reviewed by: Tim Winter

Reviewed: 8 July, 2005
Venue: Almeida Theatre, London

Placed, somewhat arbitrarily, at the end of the Almeida Opera season this year were two concerts of early works by Steve Reich and Philip Glass, a collaboration with Tate Modern’s “Open Systems” exhibition which explores the radical re-invention of both visual- and performance-art that occurred in the late 60s and early 70s. In this concert of Reich, Richard Bernas’s Music Projects/London presented four pieces starting with his seminal tape work Come Out (1966).

Originally conceived for a benefit concert to raise money to defend six young black men wrongly accused of murder during the Harlem riots of 1964, Reich takes a short extract from one of their statements about the abuse they received at the hands of the police – I had to open the bruise up and let some of the bruise blood come out to show them” – and created a tape loop of the last five words. As the loop starts to go out of phase with itself a complex and fascinating soundworld is produced, the words transform into melody and rhythm through the reverberation. This is one of Reich’s most enduring and powerful experiments and has lost none of its power but would have made even more of an impact if it had been given more volume.

Suited and booted, looking like rejects from a Kraftwerk convention, three members of Music Projects/London then set in motion a less successful idea, Pendulum – for Microphones, Amplifiers, Loudspeakers and Performers (1968). Three microphones were suspended from the roof and left to swing past their respective amplifiers, causing a bit of feedback each time they passed by. Rhythmic patterns are created but the whole thing would be far more fun with Hendrix-like screaming: ear-splitting noise rather than the polite little booms that actually occur.

Applause was muted after each of the first two works – what, or who, are we applauding? But there was a warm welcome for Nancy Ruffer. She gamely played her part in Vermont Counterpoint (1982) written for a flautist and nine other, pre-recorded members of the flute family. This is familiar Reich territory: short, repeated melodic patterns built up into rich, contrapuntal textures with the occasional rhythmic side-step and predictable, though welcome modulations. Ruffer, playing alto flute, flute and piccolo and swapping instruments continually, fitted in with her taped collaborators with ease, although the presence of the ‘live’ performer a distracting and, ultimately, unnecessary.

With Four Organs (1970), Reich started to move away from the phase-patterns that had dominated his work and towards a music that could be performed by humans rather than machines. Repeated figuration and systematic structural forms are played out but there is more of a sense of freedom and joy in making music than in his previous works. The four organists, and Tim Henty on maracas keeping it all together, couldn’t quite cope with the music’s fiendishly difficult rhythmic demands and the odd missed entry was cruelly exposed.

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