Steve Reich at 80, Barbican | reviews, news & interviews
Steve Reich at 80, Barbican
Steve Reich at 80, Barbican
Britten Sinfonia, Synergy Vocals and Clark Rundell hail the king of ruthless focus
I could have sworn there was a spontaneous outbreak of phased coughing in the Barbican Hall on Saturday night, rapidly dissolving into laughter; such was the festive atmosphere at Steve Reich’s 80th birthday gig. This three-part epic attracted a full house, spanning the generations – from Michael Nyman, behind me mischievously proclaiming Reich’s debt to him, to students catching a glimpse of a legend.
The man himself, on duty at the sound-desk, cast a colder eye on proceedings, at one point shouting angrily to stop a mis-synched start. We shouldn’t, of course, expect anything less: without Reich’s pitiless, self-effacing rigour, we wouldn’t have the legacy: a music of architectural precision which hums with humanity. These works are built to last, by a formidable master of technique who has maintained a laser-like focus on his chosen path.
Pendulum Music was, therefore, an inspired opener, a piece of pure experimental sound sculpture from 1968 in which 15 microphones are set to swing over 15 speakers. It opens with a snaking swarm of sound, through which isolated bird-like calls are heard, like coded messages, gradually obliterated by ever-faster, louder pulses of churning feedback.
Reich was always more interested in the way musicians could replicate his phase experiments than he was in developing technologies, a point nicely made in the cascading canons of Nagoya Guitars, an arrangement of his 1994 marimba duet for two electric guitars.
Performed by guitarists from American group Dither, it lacked the tonal purity and fluidity of the original, but gained a spicy kick, as did Electric Counterpoint, realised by all 13 of the group (instead of the usual soloist with backing tracks). Sheer joy propelled this tour de force of collective concentration, its kora-like figures exploding in glittering garlands of counterpoint (just watching one guitarist conduct the first part gave a glimpse of the score’s fiendish rhythmic organisation). The standing ovation was heartfelt.
Reich's indelible Holocaust memorial, Different Trains, was taken on by a Britten Sinfonia group, led by new co-leader Thomas Gould (pictured below). The sound balance favoured the pre-recording over on-stage quartet, which helped clarify the documentary speech, but threatened its innate intimacy. Only cellist Caroline Dearnley gave a much-needed visceral edge to her part; the final sobbing lines of the violins sounded simply neutral.
Pulse (2015), a UK premiere, turned out to be an unexpected pool of tranquility in an oeuvre marked by dynamic menace. Scored lightly for upper strings, bass guitar, winds and piano, it opens with Coplandesque luminesence and proceeds to weave graceful arabesques in canon over a harmonically static guitar pedal. The Britten Sinfonia, under Clark Rundell, caught its gentle, airy elegance to perfection, finding a surprising element of nostalgia in its aspirant lines and keening suspensions.
The night ended with Three Tales, Reich and his wife Beryl Korot’s, 2002 video opera on the subject of man's technological hubris in the 20th century. Described by Korot herself as "Two (cautionary) Tales and a Talk", it’s a serious conception whose artistic rewards diminish as it progresses. Hindenburg offers a bracing array of techniques, including Reich’s sly loop of Wagner’s Nibelung hammering motif from The Ring and Korot’s intriguing treatment of moving individuals from documentary footage, while Bikini, which follows the forced exile of the Bikini people for US atom bomb tests) gathers a tragic momentum, even with unexceptional visuals. Both were brought to pungent life by Synergy Vocals and Britten Sinfonia.
By the time we get to Dolly, the cloned sheep, we’re left with talking heads, and a score that seems to have dropped into conveyor-belt mode. Crude cut-outs and lurid colouration date it badly; a loop of Richard Dawkins's mouth spouting "we are machines created by our genes" achieves veritably gothic horror. Humility is the message, and has never been more relevant. The irony is that technology itself got the upper hand. This work requires a frame, like Reich’s instrumental and choral music, that will stand the test of time.
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