Steve Reich at 80 – Barbican review

reich-80

Steve Reich at 80

Pendulum Music (1968)

Nagoya Guitars (1996)

Electric Counterpoint (1987)

Different Trains (1988)

Pulse (2015) [Barbican co-commission: European premiere]

Three Tales (2002)

Dither (electric guitars), Thomas Gould and Miranda Dale (violins), Clare Finnimore (viola), Caroline Dearnley (cello), Beryl Korot (video); Electronic Music Studios of the GSMD; Synergy Vocals; Britten Sinfonia / Clark Rundell

Barbican Hall, London

Saturday 5th November [6.30pm]

The Barbican venues were dominated this weekend by Steve Reich, whose 80th birthday fell on October 3rd and whose music is the most vital manifestation of the minimalist aesthetic, as well as a pervasive influence on later generations of essentially non-minimalist composers.

The Saturday evening concert itself offered a fair overview of Reich’s evolution across three decades. Pendulum Music may be more an art installation than musical composition, but the presence of 16 people each setting a microphone in motion, such that the resulting feedback is projected by accompanying speakers, makes for a music-theatrical experience of no mean efficacy. A thought persists whether Reich might have been encouraged to do for pendulums what Ligeti had done for metronomes with his Poème symphonique just six years previously?

Utterly consistent in his compositional techniques, Reich has never written intrinsically bad pieces though he has written a few boring ones. There could be no doubting the effectiveness with which David Tanenbaum adapted 1994’s Nagoya Marimbas into Nagoya Guitars, even though the resulting canonic interplay barely sustained interest over its six minutes. Nor did the presence of live guitarists make Electric Counterpoint a riveting experience – not helped by amplification that blurred the interplay of the 11 leads and muddied that of the two basses.

This programme was to have featured Reich’s WTC 9/11 (by some way the most meaningful response to those atrocities in New York), but few would have begrudged revival of Different Trains. Here a live string quartet and three pre-recorded equivalents are overlaid with speech patterns as evoke their literal and metaphorical ‘journeys’ to spellbinding effect, above all in the climactic central Europe – during the war section where observations of three Holocaust survivors become integrated into a soundscape as affecting as any Reich has (and could ever have) achieved. Framed by engaging recollections of the composer’s peripatetic childhood in America – before the war, and a more reflective sequence focussing on observations After the war, it is likely to remain Reich’s masterpiece and Minimalism’s defining raîson d’être.

After which, Pulse was a gentle come-down. This latest Reich work deploys its ensemble of woodwind, strings and pianos via interweaving canons in music that pivots between repose and torpor – with more than a hint of American ‘ruralism’ as regard its harmony and texture.

Back to more immediate concerns with Three Tales – the second of Reich’s collaborations with the video artist Beryl Korot, and his closest engagement (to date) with the premises of contemporary music-theatre. There are three parts, and these are strongly differentiated as to era, concept and underlying form. Thus Hindenburg unfolds as a suite where reportage of the 1937 zeppelin disaster frames imagery of its construction and (over-reaching) ambition, while Bikini is akin to an oblique sonata-design in which footage from the air, on the atoll and on the ships is imbued with expressive intensification and ominous Biblical undertones.

These latter are to the fore in Dolly, where images of the first cloned mammal become the catalyst for six sections akin – in musical terms – to developing variation in the way over a dozen talking heads, with their ‘outlooks’ on the future, are juxtaposed in a sequence whose implosive final dialogue of Kismet (a socially intelligent humanoid robot) with its creator parallels changes from external to internal technological developments over the last century.

Hugely ambitious (despite its barely hour-long duration) and far more compellingly presented than on its previous Barbican outing over a decade ago, Three Tales might still promise more than it delivers, but its attempt to grapple with contemporary issues remains absorbing and it is to be hoped that Reich and Korot will take on one more collaborative challenge. Tonight’s realization overcame technical hitches to convey its emotional charge in full measure, Clark Rundell drawing a precisely coordinated response from Synergy Vocals and Britten Sinfonia.

Reich and Korot were on hand for a post-performance discussion where the former was asked as to future-plans. His immediate task is for a piece on the principals of the ‘concerto grosso’, which will doubtless emerge revivified at the hands of this perennially resourceful composer.

Richard Whitehouse

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