Where to begin? So vast is the prospect before us: an epic celebration honouring a pioneer and legend of contemporary classical music as he approaches his 75th year: two full-to-bursting days of music from numerous ensembles and soloists across two venues, featuring several British premieres, the work of over 25 composers and almost a dozen different groups and orchestras; a hardcore prospect indeed. One that few living composers could authentically merit, you may think, but Steve Reich has done more than most to push the artform into the present day and make it relevant to audiences raised in the shadows of mass communication and powered flight. The influence of his rhythmic, warm, approachable music is everywhere, from the percussive post-rock of Tortoise to the blissful ambient drift of The Orb, and in a climate where the classical concert hall is still seen as a sterile, inhuman ivory tower, Reich’s ebullient crossover impact deserves no less a celebration. This is just a sample of the first day’s events.
Beginning in the charming, ecclesiastical surroundings of LSO St Luke’s, New York group So Percussion lead us through one of Reich’s most famous work, Music For Pieces Of Wood, a fine introduction to the highly rhythmic Reich sound-world. It’s naggingly insistent, repetitive tap-tapping patterns worm their way into the head, leading to a trance-like transcendence: as handy a microcosm of Reich’s oeuvre as any other. This is followed by So Percussion’s own Imaginary City, a dazzling blend of projected video and multi-instrumental atmosphere. Next up are Reich’s fellow travellers in the world of New York concert music Bang On A Can All-Stars who perform (after an amusingly long changeover) three works. Lukas Ligeti‘s Glamour Girl which with its atonal piano-stabs, pleading clarinet and growling electric guitar straddles the worlds of orchestral jazz, Bartok-like folk rhythms and the teeming clouds of sonic colour that Lukas’ father Gyorgy was famous for. Dutch veteran Louis Andriessen‘s Life, another audiovisual piece, sees four movements of mournful complexity soundtracking Marijke van Warmerdam’s abstract footage of swirling debris in an industrial landscape and an ageing couple dwarfed by the majesty of nature. The lean, athletic figure of composer Steve Martland appears to introduce his piece Horses Of Instruction with a hesitant but heartfelt speech railing against the Big Society. It’s a thunderous, restless beast, its William Blake title reflected in the stiff, urgent trotting rhythms of its finale. An obviously pleased Martland can be glimpsed beaming throughout the performance, as can Bang On A Can themselves, who will, over the next few hours, persistently look like they’re having a better time than the often rather dour audience.
Venues shift to the Neo-brutalist beauty of the Barbican Centre and the visitor’s descent into the foyer above the concert space is serenaded by the ubiquitous Bang On A Can (here augmented by young musicians from the Guildhall School Of Music which is itself housed somewhere within the snaking walkways of the Barbican) playing their swooning, sighing take on Brian Eno‘s Music For Airports, the hubbub of chatter from the milling crowd only occasionally being drowned out by the long, slowly-rising vocal lines on their journey up to the multi-coloured lamps in the ceiling.
The evening session proper sees the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Andre de Ridder take on one of Reich’s best-loved works, the Variations for Winds, Strings and keyboards. Long-held, shimmering string chords shift imperceptibly beneath a bubbling brook of flute and piano as swelling clouds of brass emerge and dissolve. The effect is closer to Vaughn Williams than Philip Glass, a tranquil nature scene observed from a high vantage point, much as Reich himself observes the orchestra from beneath the peak of his ever-present baseball cap as he stands in the mixing desk behind the crowd.
Anna Clyne‘s Rewind follows, a piece that she describes in her introduction as being inspired by the properties of recording tape. It’s all glowering brass, swarming strings and sudden smashes of percussion, with some fairly startling crescendos, ending as promised with a dense, seething mess of sound reminiscent of tape unspooling from a cassette deck. Arguably the highpoint of this section is Michael Gordon‘s witty and unnerving Rewriting Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, which does exactly what it says on the tin in eerie and unexpectedly moving ways. The effect of Beethoven’s crashing intro being melted and distorted by the woozy strings is like music misremembered through a fog of damaged memory. The original’s tragic, haunting Allegretto is more scary than sad here, a funeral being consumed by oily quicksand.
During the interval a relentless drone can be heard from the foyer and following it upward leads to lone bagpiper Donald Lindsay on the Freestage playing Julia Wolfe‘s LAD, an amplified setting of traditional Celtic airs. The loudest thing heard today it reverberates impressively off the walls and is impossible to escape completely throughout the venue. Not that you’d want to escape such a stirring sound.
As late running times begin to make a nonsense of the programme’s careful plans The BBC SO and some more of those Guildhall students treat us to ex-Battles front man Tyondai Braxton‘s Central Market, a crazily restless carnival of sounds, taking in everything from electric guitar to throbbing electro pulses, haunted-house strings, fairground brass, shrilling kazoos and flat, strident vocalizing. It’s to Braxton’s credit that the moments which recall the pinwheeling sonic extremes of Battles are all of a piece with the equally daring orchestral flourishes.
After another interminable set change, the legendary Kronos Quartet take up residency for several pieces. Bryce Dessner‘s Aheym is a restless, rhythmic, deceptively complex and startlingly confident work for someone best known as guitarist with gloomy post-Swans balladeers The National. The traditional Jewish hymn Ov Horachamim and mysterious 12th century composer Perotin’s‘s Vidurent Omnes are brief but affecting, the former in particular wrenching a drainingly emotional viola solo from Hank Dutt.
Following this comes the British premiere of Reich’s most recent work. WTC 9/11. Bathed in a pool of yellow light, the Kronos Quartet create an anxious confusion of sawing strings as the recorded voices of 9/11 witnesses and survivors loop, mutter and repeat above them. The effect is a powerful one not least because this particular elegy for the dead contains as much anger and shock as it does grief and has as much in common with Steinski‘s sample collage The Motorcade Sped On as it does with Barber‘s Adagio For Strings.
One would think that this shattering work would be unfollowable. Indeed the audience thins noticeably as yet another warning of a long wait between sets is given. But more fool them, because Ghostbuster Cook: The Origin of the Riddler (So Percussion’s collaboration with the wildly inventive Dan Deacon) may be the best thing seen today. Building gradually from a Tom Waits-like intro which sees the performers playing dangling plastic bottles on a line as Deacon provides sonic manipulation, it moves out and across the stage to encompass a ferocious, noisy middle section of timpani and tom tom. Uncorking the bottles and letting the water splash and trickle into a microphone turns the Barbican Hall into a subterranean cave (or a public urinal) for what seems like an eternity as the group stand rigid and unmoving at their marimbas and glockenspiels like showroom dummies. When the final drip echoes into silence the finale is worth waiting for as the shimmering Glocks turn the Barbican into the inside of a music box for a long, breathless moment.
As the clock nears midnight, Bang On A Can reappear to breathe life into Lee ‘Sonic Youth’ Ranaldo‘s How Deep Are Rivers, a long, seemingly formless crescendo of feedback and skronk which resolves midway into a thundering post-rock spaghetti western befitting of its dedicatee (the late Epic Soundtracks from Swell Maps). Ranaldo’s reputation as an architect of pure noise doesn’t comfort the many audience members who walk out or clamp their hands over their ears, clearly unused to such an aural barrage. The evening finishes over an hour later than scheduled with an all-star ensemble drawn from the day’s ranks (including a returning Braxton and Dessner) to assay Reich’s 2×5, for two pianos and massed electric guitars. Here the two worlds that Reich has spanned for so long come together in a piece of relentless, evolving beauty, the pianos being used as rhythm-markers, the guitars surging and weaving lavish colours from thin air.
By the time the ovation erupts it is way too late for a tube train home, but those who remained care nothing for that as Reich darts onto the stage to absorb yet more applause, yet more awe. It may be a comfortable indoor venue in the heart of London, and the average spectator may be well into middle age, but no muddied, bloodied festival crowd could raise the roof this high.