REVIEW: Steve Reich at 80 at Barbican Hall

The Electric Counterpoint Big Band of 13 guitarists at the Barbican
Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2016. All Rights Reserved 


Steve Reich at 80
(Barbican Hall, 5th November 2106; review and drawing by Geoff Winston)


 The Barbican celebrated Steve Reich ten years ago with a major season on his seventieth birthday, and they have again honoured him with a weekend series on his eightieth.

The programme in the Barbican's main hall combined iconic works, Different Trains (1988) and Electric Counterpoint (1987), with recent compositions, Pulse for winds, strings, piano and electric bass (a 2015 Barbican co-commission) and Three Tales (2002), the early staple, Pendulum Music (1968-71) and an adaptation of Nagoya Marimbas, Nagoya Guitars (1996).

Pendulum Music is about process and its unpredictable outcomes. Less of a composition per se, it is an instruction whereby mics are attached to swings to induce a pattern of gravity assisted pulses as the they pass over speakers to induce feedback until the swinging mics eventually arrive at stasis. Last seen at LCMF, where mics were attached to four garden swings, the same principle was enacted by seventeen performers from the Guildhall School's Electronic Music Studios in a geometrically consistent, black and grey two-row setting with bright electric blue lit mics attached to each short pendulum. The constraints created boundaries and possibilities as the pulses overlapped with random, yet strongly defined patterning, eventually decaying to silence with the elegant stage lighting fading in tandem.

Nagoya Guitars, in mild contrast, flowed gently in the soothing hands of two of the guitarists from New York's Dither guitar quartet.

The highpoint of the concert in many ways was the performance of Electric Counterpoint by thirteen guitarists. Mark Stewart, the Bang on a Can stalwart and elder statesman, introduced The Electric Counterpoint Big Band (last assembled in New York in 2015) which included Dither and another eight guitar players, dropping in a well-received quip about 'herding guitarists'.

Whereas the usual paradigm is for a single guitarist to pre-record 12 parts and then accompany these in the live performance, here was a unique situation where all 13 parts were performed live, with none committed to digital or tape capture, and only the score's pages as reference, so that each part gained a unique aspect, no matter how subtle, from each individual guitarist's contribution to the whole.

Indeed, dimensions were added as passages benefitted from the large group's concentrated effort, directed in understated fashion by Dither's James Moore with Stewart. With beautifully balanced sound, waves of bass thrumming emerged against the consistently paced rhythmic structure, with lightly acoustic episodes, and a brief spell of chordal strumming filling out the predominantly picked interplay. This large group interpretation, sharing responsibilities across the stage, revealed great depths to the composition, and as befitted the occasion, at its conclusion Steve Reich took to the stage to shake each performer by the hand, with a bear hug for Stewart, too.

Different Trains gained a visceral dimension from the precision of the string quartet's live accompaniment to the pre-recorded elements, although the all-important voices seemed somewhat harsh and indistinct in the mix.

Pulse was something of a curiosity, notwithstanding its status as a recent commission. Imagine Copland's Appalachian Spring with a beat and that gives some idea of its heritage and ambience. Pleasing and melodic, beautifully played by the twelve-piece chamber group, it shied away from the ground-breaking ethos with which Reich is more usually associated.

Three Tales was a complex conceptual proposition, in the mould of Reich's major compositions, tackling the issues raised by three key historical events picked out by Reich and his wife, video artist, Beryl Korot - the Hindenburg zeppelin crash in New Jersey, the atomic bomb tests at Bikini atoll and Dolly the sheep. The combined forces of the Britten Sinfonia and Synergy Vocals offered a dynamic interpretation of the score, finely synchronised with pre-recorded elements that included vocals extracted from interviews, very much in the spirit of those in Different Trains, and Korot's video. The contribution of the visual aspect is perhaps subject for consideration at another time, but suffice it to say that the composition itself stood up very strongly in the context of Reich's key works.

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

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