Steve Reich Drumming

Steve Reich

The Colin Currie Group: Colin Currie, Sam Walton, Joby Burgess, Tony Bedewi, Adrian Spillett, Andrew Cottee, Richard Benjafield, Owen Gunnell & Adam Clifford (percussion) and Rowland Sutherland (piccolo)

Synergy Vocals: Micaela Haslam & Heather Cairncross (voice)

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 16 February, 2010
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

Steve Reich. Photograph: stevereich.comSomething special happened at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Not only did percussion hold its own in the International Chamber Music Season, but Steve Reich was present for his 1971 work, Drumming. It was the first time that Colin Currie had met Reich and, by Reich’s own admission in the intriguing post-concert discussion between them, hosted by Southbank Centre’s head of contemporary arts Gillian Moore, it was the first time he had heard the work without being one of the performers. That he was so effusive about the performance added to the audience’s already overwhelming acclamation.

As Reich’s programme note and then interview related, he spent something like a year composing Drumming, which follows skins (eight small drums) with marimbas then glockenspiels, these last two accompanied by either two high voices or one voice and piccolo (Reich having realised that a human voice couldn’t cut through the brittle sound of the glockenspiel). First performed in a New York gallery (as in London, when its European première was in the Hayward Gallery), the work was never scandalous, and its influence has grown in the near 40 years since.

Colin Currie. Photograph: Chris DawesOf his visit to Africa just before composing Drumming, Reich wrote that it confirmed his intuition about the usability of acoustic instruments in creating music as complex as electronic processes. As he explained in the talk, he had become interested in African music some seven years earlier, and had found much inspiration from a book by a British musicologist who had minutely detailed rhythms by master drummers of a Togo tribe that Reich would later hear for himself. The magic number is 12, which can be divided so many ways, and the whole work is built from a repetitive rhythm that players enter out-of-phase to create variations and waves of overtones. It was hearing the overtones on the marimba that Reich first ‘heard’ women’s voices, hence the addition of the three non-percussion musicians.

Cast in four parts – the ‘solo’ drums, marimba and then glockenspiels topped by a finale for all three sets of instruments as well as the vocal elements – and lasting some 70 minutes, this was a mesmerising performance masterminded by Colin Currie (drums and, latterly, marimba). Everything was beautifully choreographed, with those not performing sitting on either side of the platform and the instruments themselves aesthetically laid out – drums in the middle, with marimbas on one side and glockenspiels on the other.

Somehow an aural aura was created that seemed to make the music appear around the audience – so that the glockenspiels sounded above rather than in front. It all added to the mesmeric nature of the performance, with Reich’s extraordinary transitions between sets of instruments impeccably handled. The music is timeless – in every sense, though particularly in that it simply doesn’t feel like lasting over an hour. What so impressed Reich was the fact that his music seemed so much more emotional as he sat listening to it rather than playing it and Currie himself stressed the extraordinary chamber qualities of the work, which allows such minute variations within the strict notated rhythms and phases.

From all angles, a revelation – and we heard that from the composer himself. There is a repeat performance, albeit not until Saturday 20 October, in a day packed with drumming, at Birmingham’s Town Hall.

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