Music by Steve Reich

Music by Steve Reich: A Conversation + Concert, Melbourne Recital Centre, April 30, 2012


Two performers.

The sound of four hands clapping.

One performer maintains a fixed pattern. At first, the other claps in unison, and then slowly changes the rhythm until he is obviously out of synch with the first.  As the piece progresses the second performer keeps changing the beat until he eventually returns to the original pattern, and all four hands are back in unison.

Sounds boring, huh? Actually, I found the performance, Clapping Music, which was composed by Steve Reich in 1972, surprisingly compelling— in fact, it was powerfully mesmerizing, captivating, and I loved the way the amplified sound of human flesh reverberated around the recital hall, which became the third participant in the performance.  Clapping Music provided the perfect introduction to the man whose name, for better or for worse, is synonymous with minimalism, a much-maligned genre of contemporary classical music — You can’t get more minimal than using the human body as an instrument.

Reich, along with his contemporaries Philip Glass and Terry Reilly, has managed to attract a large following of fans by expanding the world of sound, and drawing inspiration from the rhythms, and melodies of the everyday world. He’s also renowned for using recording technology as an instrument, and compositional tool, as evidenced in the recital’s second item, Vermont Counterpoint, which is a duet between a live flautist, and a series of pre-recorded flute parts. A series of short musical phrases are played through the PA system, and the ‘live’ musician interacts with these fragments of melody, sometimes by playing in unison, but most often by staging a conversation with the recorded sounds. The effect is quite stunning, and the virtuosity of the flautist, Tim Munro, unbelievable.

The following work, Drumming Part 1, involves four percussionists, all clad in basic black, assembled around an array of tuned bongo drums. They employ the same technique used in the first composition — one player establishes a basic rhythmic pattern while the others swirl around the beat, twisting and snaking around each other, beating, retreating, and, sometimes, just bleating. Eventually, the ensemble returns to playing in unison. The theatrical illumination, which frames the musicians in a pool of white light, heightens the atmospheric quality of the performance, which transmits a palpable energetic force to the audience.

The final piece, the main course, if you will, is Different Trains, a rare work of high intellectual ambition that magically touches the soul. This is where Reich pulls out all the stops.  Inspired by his Jewish ancestry and his train journeys across the USA as a child, this work for string quartet and tape incorporates snatches of recorded speech, and ‘sampled’ train sounds, which become the basis for the work’s melodies and rhythms that are doubled by the live quartet, who coax a wide variety of wild scapes and screeches that mimic the cacophony of sounds associated with different kinds of train travel.

The composition has three distinct sections. The first, America — before the war, was inspired by the composer’s childhood. Reich’s parents separated not long after his birth. His father lived in New York, while his mother resided in Los Angeles. The young Reich regularly travelled between these two cities, and the first part of his composition evokes his experience of riding the coast-to-coast train. This almost buoyant second contrasts markedly with the second section, which is titled, Europe — During the war. Had Reich lived in Europe he may well have found himself on a very different kind of train journey, and this sobering thought accounts for the almost brutal tone of this part of the work, which incorporates the speech of holocaust survivors. The final section, After the War, is, if anything, even harsher in tone, yet it provides a satisfying coda to what is essentially a kind of narrative tone poem. Once again, the musicianship from the string quartet was stunning, and the audience gave them an appropriately enthusiastic response.

After a twenty-minute intermission, Reich appeared on stage with a group of musicians, including the highly articulate Australian flautist Tim Munro for the conversational component of the event. Reich was lucid, sharp, and displayed a keen sense of humour, especially when Munro compared his work to The Simpsons! Reich looked mystified until Munro explained that people can appreciate Reich’s work on a number of levels: Children, he clarified, love The Simpsons as funny cartoon characters without necessarily understanding the complex layers of irony and satire present in the show; similarly, it’s possible to enjoy Reich’s music as pure sound without any knowledge of the theory behind his compositions.

For the most part, the conversation flowed freely, although it got pretty technical and difficult for non-musicians to follow at times. Lisa Kaplan did manage to provide a remarkably lucid explanation of ‘phasing’ by putting her hands together in order to represent musicians playing in unison, and then slightly rotating one hand away from the other to break the symmetry of image, thus visually demonstrating how Reich’s music often moves out of phase.

Reich spoke about some of his more recent work, and a forthcoming project with Radiohead’s guitar player, Johnny Greenwood, a contemporary classical composer in his own right. Reich does a fine line in self-deprecating humour, and came across as a humble, yet forceful personality who keeps his ears wide open without regard for the boundaries that separate different genres of music. The world of musical sound is always bigger than we think it is, and Reich’s work helps us become attuned to the musicality of life.


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