thu 25/07/2024

BBC Proms: Ensemble Modern, Steve Reich | reviews, news & interviews

BBC Proms: Ensemble Modern, Steve Reich

BBC Proms: Ensemble Modern, Steve Reich

Minimalist modern classics go down a storm at first Proms performance

Steve Reich and Rainer Romer: Clapping was mutualBBC/ Chris Christodoulou (all pics)

One thing became clearer to me last night – just how much Steve Reich has borrowed from world music in his compositions – we had the flamenco-tinged ClappingElectric Counterpoint, using Central African guitar lines, and Music for 18 Musicians, a mix of West African rhythms, Indonesian gamelan and other elements.

It was also clear how much a sold-out late-night Prom audience had taken this music to their hearts, nearly 40 years after some of it was written. It still sounds fresh and, rather than being mindlessly repetitive, most of it shimmers away. Like an endless. Like an endless summer. Like an endless summer evening. Add incrementally to taste.

Clapping, from 1972, was also, of course, a clever piece of conceptual art – isn’t clapping what audiences do? But it would be hard to overestimate the impact the piece had among fellow composers like Michael Nyman and John Adams. After the over-intellectual cult of atonality that came before it, here was a call to simplicity, back to the most human of instruments possible, the hands. Permission was granted to reclaim primal musical delight in a way that was not nostalgic. The fact that the acoustics of the Albert Hall rather ruined the impact didn’t matter as it was only five minutes long. It was more of an homage to a pivotal piece with Reich and Rainer Römer on stage clapping each other, making it look simple when in fact the elements fitted together like a Rubik's Cube, easy enough after years of practice but fiendish for the unwary.

A 15-minute piece from 1987, Electric Counterpoint was played with unflashy aplomb by Swedish guitarist Mats Bergoström making his Proms debut on what looked like a vintage Gibson electric in a Pat Metheny style (the piece was apparently partly inspired by Metheny’s open ostinato playing) to seismic layers of backing track. It was also very soukous influenced – the sound of 1970s Zaire, as it then was. The problem for me was the chord progressions, which showed Reich wandering all over the place. By the mid-Eighties most of the Minimalists had given up being minimal, which to my mind was a failure of nerve. Or a bit like a mosque saying, "Oh well, let’s have a few pictures of the Prophet Mohammed in after all and undercut the mystique."

The centrepiece was Music for 18 Musicians (1974-6) which, at nearly an hour, is the best argument for Reich there is. The forward propulsion is mesmeric, the shifting horizons at times vertiginous, and, above all, its positivity is extraordinary. It was music for the dawn of a new age, collectivist in nature (no stars), a trance/healing music that required a different way of listening, in that the repetition draws you in to the minutiae of the patterns. I wonder when a composer will be able to summon up such optimism again.

'That seemed to add a not unwelcome element of psychedelia to what actually is a rigorous piece'


It kept up the almost tantric tension throughout. As far as how well it was played, it seems that as long as the notes are played correctly it’s more a case of collective feel and groove rather than anything else than makes the piece work. The fact that the Ensemble Modern clearly knew the piece well and are Reich specialists made the strings, clarinets and marimbas and xylophones lock in perfectly. Reich himself played understated piano stage right. The other essential element, beyond the mathematical conundrums, is the pulse, making the piece breathe like a Leviathan. If they repeated it at the Albert Hall they might look again at some of the dynamics as the sound was a little muddy and unfocussed at times, but even that seemed to add a not unwelcome element of psychedelia to what actually is a rigorous piece.

It’s also interesting with hindsight to see it of its time – of a 1970s New York that was at a musical creative peak. Within a few miles and years funk was developed, as was punk, disco, hip hop and salsa, all of which were to go global, and the world of high and low art intermingled in a way not seen since Paris in the 1920s. The piece manages to be both intellectual, with little funky off-beats, and somehow spiritual, jumping into something oceanic as though a Zen riddle had been solved (the sound of one-hand clapping?). The edge-of-frame vocals by the alto and sopranos of Synergy Vocals added to the Shangri-La feel of a timeless, newly discovered zone. Mixed in with the global influences, Reich has pointed to the Parisian master Perotin, from eight centuries ago, who stretched out plainsong melodies to breaking point. The fact that it was the first performance (as it was for Electric Counterpoint) at the Proms seemed rather remarkable – the audience roared approval: here was modern(ish) music that was totally pleasurable without being in the slightest bit sentimental or kitsch.


I too was exhilerated and so happy to see a capacity crowd of all ages getting gripped by Reich's essentially optimistic music. He is of course able to write darker pieces such as 'Different Trains' disproving the accusation that minimalists don't do light and shade. Sadly 'Clapping' didn't reall work in the RAH with the crisp sounds bouncing off the walls in a separate counterpoint though some might have thought this an aleatory bonus. As Peter Culshaw notes Electric Counterpoint is immediately reminiscent of Pat Metheny particularly my favourite: As falls Wichita .. I was glad to learn that he was indeed an influence though Metheny can also be very schmalzy something that Reich manages to avoid. I was particularly struck in Music for 18 Musicians by how the swelling bass clarinets were used to create a quasi- electric sound while the vocalize owed much to Stockhausen's Stimmung composed earlier in 1968. Reich seems to have retained more of his individual voice compared to Glass, the impact of whose music has been diluted by countless ads and documentary film scores using that Glass ostinato. Happy 75th Birthday Steve!

One hates to be picky, but weren't there actually 19 players on stage for the final piece ("Music for 18 Musicians")? I didn't check too closely, so perhaps there were only 18 playing at any one time (or maybe the score actually specifies 19 musicians as some sort of joke)...

Peter Culshaw rightly says that 'Music for 18 Musicians' is a collectivist piece. It was telling that at the end of the concert Steve Reich lined up with his fellow musicians and refused to take a solo bow. A great man, a great composer, a great evening.

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