...a unity of eyes and firelight...

Steve Reich

In Live Reviews, Music on May 23, 2011 at 5:01 pm

This is a slightly edited version of an article first published at Now Then Manchester on Friday, 20 May 2011

Thursday, 12 March 2011

RNCM, Manchester

Ideas. Theories. Labels. There’s a scene in Annie Hall (or is it Manhattan?) in which Diane Keaton describes Ingmar Bergman as ‘too cerebral.’ Woody Allen does not understand how she can use this word to describe why she does not like a piece of art. He does not grasp the argument. Surely, the more cerebral a piece is, the more it challenges the systems and patterns which hold your perceptions of the world together, the better. At the risk of sounding somewhat like a Cameron Crowe movie, this can only work if the piece still speaks to its audience; if it has ‘soul.’

We started the night with Steve Reich up on stage himself, with percussionist Simone Rebello, performing Clapping Music. The word ‘minimalism’ means many things to many people, but no one could possibly argue with labelling this as such. Two people, up on stage, clapping. No instruments other than their hands. It was composed in 1972 and must have been incredibly original at the time. But tonight it reminded me of Stomp. Sure, it challenged one’s sense of rhythm, and sure it must have been difficult to perform; one person claps one phrase repeatedly while the other shifts one note every few bars, to become increasingly out of sync before returning to being back in sync. And while that is technically impressive, I spent much of the piece just wincing at the possibility that one of the clappers might make a mistake (whether or not many of us would have noticed is a moot point). To bring Cameron Crowe back, this piece did not speak to me.

The second piece was Cello Counterpoint. It can be played live by eight people or by one, with the other seven parts pre-recorded. Tonight, we had the latter, played by David McCann. Again, I found myself thinking that the idea of playing live with a recording of oneself would have felt completely alien for many classical musicians when Steve Reich started to experiment with the idea in the 1980s. But hip-hop artists had been doing it for several years by then. And now, the technique is employed in many different genres, and has been added to through the use of pedals and other instruments used to make recordings and loops, so that one can create textures previously not possible as a solo artist. So why then do we return to Steve Reich for this idea? I found myself wondering about the cache of being an accepted part of the classical music canon, and whether this was the reason we still cared about Steve Reich and his innovations. These techniques that are now so widespread within the world of popular music, are they not somewhat gimmicky when transposed back the world of classical music?

And then I melted.

Finally, the angular phrasing, McCann’s jolting movements and head-nodding, the anxiety-inducing disharmony hit me. Yes, it spoke to me. (Sorry.) And finally, the ideas, the theories mattered. I began to consider why it is that I had initially thought the piece would have been better had all eight parts been played live. What is it that would have been different? Obviously the sound would have been. But the feel would have been too.

Eight people playing one piece is the coming together of those eight people, to try to achieve some kind of harmony. Even if the piece is as disharmonious or filled with angular tension as this, the eight players create that tension together, after starting out as eight separate entities. When one person is playing, he/she starts out as one, and branches out to fill many different possibilities at once – a musical embodiment of the multiverse. The effect was visible on McCann; it felt as though he was not just playing with himself, but also against himself. There was a Sisyphean element of competition to the performance. Heartbreaking because he could never win.

The third piece was Eight Lines, performed by the RNCM Chamber Ensemble. On stage were two pianos, two string quartets, two clarinets, a bass clarinet, a flute and a piccolo. The pianists played separate but repetitive phrases, overlapping at times, while the others played repeating phrases that faded in, out and back into the tune. The overall effect was astounding. While each player or group of players repeated its own phrase or allowed it to grow sequentially, the sounds of the others around it caused it to seem to mutate. Its purpose, place and effect within the whole piece was transformed without it having changed itself. John Adams said of Steve Reich that, ‘he didn’t reinvent the wheel so much as he showed us a new way to ride.’ This was embodied within this one piece, as Reich repeatedly showed us new ways to listen, new ways to hear.

The final piece was Different Trains, performed by the Caecilius Quartet. This was a piece written for the Kronos Quartet, a meditation on Reich’s childhood sitting on trains across the USA in the 1930s and 40s. Had he been born in Europe, those trains could have been taking him to concentration camps.

It starts out as a quite jaunty piece, comical actually, appropriately for a reminiscence of one’s childhood. There are recordings of announcements from railway stations, a clipped ‘from Chicago,’ or the elongated, ‘from Chicago to New York.’ I say comical, because the tones of these announcements were then mimicked by the players on their instruments. It was a kind of mockery and an homage, both of the musicality of the announcers, and also of the call and response musical model.

We seamlessly moved into the second movement, where the recordings being played were no longer these benign sounds. They were air raid sirens and harsh whistles. Again the players responded with similar sounds, but it was no longer amusing mimicry. The sounds were adding up synergistically to create an overarching sense of fear and panic. I shifted repeatedly in my chair, unable to find a comfortable position, a position in which I could sit back and be anaesthetised by the music rather than enervated.

Finally we reached the third movement, returning to the American train announcers, ‘Chicago to New York.’ Somehow the call and response was no longer so amusing. It felt vapid, empty. I felt gutted, drained. But edgy.

And then it stopped.

Steve Reich may have invented minimalism. He may have invented, or at least discovered, the technique we now call phasing. He may have ‘shown us a new way to ride’ and he may have done so more than once. His work is certainly cerebral, but what we saw tonight is that the man has soul.

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