When the first half of the South Bank Centre’s year-long The Rest Is Noise festival was announced it brought mild accusations of conservatism from certain quarters. In some respects this was a little unfair – any examination of the music of the twentieth century would need to cover pieces that already feature regularly in the concert hall. However, it was impossible to level any such charges at the show by the London Sinfonietta that charted the rise of American minimalism. It may have been part of a classical festival but what was to follow occupied a place firmly in the hinterland of the genre, arguably having as much in common with experimental/electronic music.
The programme was originally due to be opened with two pieces by La Monte Young but these were sadly removed, leaving focus to fall on the three iconic composers of the genre – Steve Reich, Philip Glass and Terry Riley. In some ways it was a shame – La Monte Young being arguably the founder and most radical composer of the movement – although his piece Poem For Chairs, Tables & Benches (involving ‘players’ dragging furniture around a room) was relayed on a large screen above the stage at the beginning.
The first piece to be performed was Philip Glass’ 1+1, a piece that saw a single performer play an amplified table top. The result was a primal, dense collection of percussive hits that introduced the key concept of tonight’s concert – phasing. The next piece, It’s Gonna Rain by Steve Reich developed this idea further. A recording of an American preacher saying the title of the piece was played simultaneously on two tapes. Gradually they move away from each other, sounding increasingly imbalanced. Sounds rise and fall out of prominence before the original line is eventually restored. It illustrates the dichotomy so evident tonight – on one level the music is defiantly intellectual but the simplicity of the fundamental idea suggests something more elementary and uncomplicated.
Reich’s Violin Phase, with its intertwining violin parts (both performed and those relayed on tape) has a similarly disorientating affect, producing a series of small harmonic reactions over the course of the 15 minutes. It also elevates the concept of ‘focus’ and specifically how shifting focus results in the constant repositioning of a piece.
Reich’s Pendulum Music sees the concert reach its most conceptual and abstract point, almost challenging the perception of what we understand by music. It has the feel of a sound art installation, appropriate in some ways given how much of the music performed tonight was first performed in New York art galleries during the 1960s. It features three swinging microphones suspended from a stand which generate feedback as they pass over the loudspeakers positioned below. In the context of minimalism and ’process music’ (and its future impact) it can be seen as a kind of necessary artistic experiment.
Reich’s Clapping Music meanwhile saw two performers sketch out complex rhythmical patterns with the help of no instruments. It advanced the idea of music as mathematics, requiring the two performers to demonstrate significant powers of mental concentration. It was followed by Knee Play 2 by Philip Glass, arguably the most conventional piece played tonight, the rapid violin flurries containing many of the stylistic attributes that he has explored in detail. The iconic In C by Terry Riley closed the concert, the superb playing of the expanded Sinfonietta bringing greater width and euphony to the programme.
The use of quotations from the composers, both projected on to the wall and played on tape make tonight feel like a combination of music concert and history lesson (something reinforced by the illuminating post-show conversation). Composers like Reich and Glass may have developed into hugely influential names, now being the elder statesmen of the contemporary classical genre, but tonight served as a valuable reminder of their avant-garde origins and how they recalibrated the very parameters of modern music.
Further details of Purcell Room concerts can be found at southbankcentre.co.uk.