Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Phases: The Music of Steve Reich @ Barbican Hall, London

October 2006

Barbican Centre

Barbican Centre (Photo: Dion Barrett)

So much to choose from but so little time as The Barbican says happy 70th birthday to one of the greatest composers of the 20th century.

With nine days packed full of events and performances celebrating the life and works of Steve Reich, it’s difficult to know where to start.

It’s impossible to see everything and therefore important that the carefully picked highlights that can be managed are going to provide enough sustenance to make the others worth missing. This alone makes The Cave an irresistible place to start.

For all the praise that can be lavished on Reich as a composer, it is his use of music in conjunction with other media that has elevated him above the efforts of minimalist contemporaries such as Philip Glass. While Michael Nyman has scored films, his music has only offered a background to the visuals, not integrated fully with them completely to create a piece of art in which neither would be as powerful alone. Since Reich’s early works, including Come Out, with its visual backdrop of civil rights riots, and Different Trains, which juxtaposed film of the composer’s journeys to his childhood holidays with footage of Jews en route to the Nazi camps, he has long ensured that the visual elements in his work are as important as the aural.

It is, therefore, somewhat surprising that it was not until a good 20 years into his marriage to video artist Beryl Korot that they decided to work together – on 1992’s The Cave, which mixed documentary footage of Israeli Jews, Palestinian Muslims and largely secular Americans talking about the Biblical figures Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Isaac and Ishmael, with Reich’s trademark repetitive signatures, time loops and classical backdrop.

The result is beautifully realised. Five video screens, electronic tapes, a live orchestra and live singers provide a genuinely modern take on the opera format, from the Biblical passages that appear on screen letter by letter as the percussion mimics the typist, to the singers’ repetition of segments of the words spoken by the on-screen interviewees. In a world where multimedia is commonplace, where video backdrops to concerts are virtually ubiquitous, it may be hard to remember how original this would have been 15 years ago. At the time, only U2’s Zoo TV tour was anywhere near as ambitious.

The complete package is a joy, a thought-provoking, intelligent and hugely enjoyable conversation on the nature of place and identity in a region of the world and politics fraught with potential pitfalls. That Reich is able to do this through the medium of truly innovative music is all the more impressive.

It’s a shame that the following night’s fare, a discourse by Reich and Korot on their other major collaboration – 2002’s Three Tales – can’t quite follow form. Three Tales is an incredible piece of work, documentary footage of three defining events of the 20th century (the crash of the Hindenburg, the atomic bomb tests on Bikini Atoll and the birth of Dolly the Sheep) set to Reich’s music, and the promise of the artists discussing the development of their piece is an enticing one.

Unfortunately, rather than a showing of Three Tales followed by an in-person discussion with Reich and Korot, this event turns out to be nothing more than a screening of the ‘making of’ documentary which has previously been seen on TV, without, bizarrely, a showing of the Three Tales work itself – no doubt leaving those in the audience who have never seen it in full both bewildered and presumably frustrated by the brief glimpses they are given of it in between Reich and Korot’s comments.

Luckily, the third and final event in my personal Reich trilogy more than makes up for the disappointment. Saturday evening offers the prize of Reich himself on stage, performing his seminal work Drumming along with an ensemble that still contains many of his original 1960s collaborators. Starting with a bank of drums in the centre of the stage, he and three other percussionists build from simple beats to a wall of sound and then retreat from it, at times performing one or two at a time, at others all drumming together. The exercise is then repeated on three glockenspiels, followed by three xylophones and then, to end, back to the drums. Vocals are added into and out of the mix, the trademark Reich phasing (in which the musicians fall in and out of synchronicity with one another) is evident throughout, as is the mixing of different styles, from jazz percussion to the tribal jungle drumming he studied extensively. The standing ovation is well, well earned.

This performance alone would be enough to earn the evening a five star review, but after a brief interval there’s more to come – from the three modern artists who have been given free reign to remix Reich’s work. The result is a perfect reminder (if one was needed) of the incredible influence Reich has had on modern hip-hop, dance and electronic music. For a man who has always identified himself firmly with the classical camp, it is in popular music that his legacy is most strongly felt and most strongly evident. DJ Spooky and the Kronos Quartet take City Life and rework it into a trance club anthemic dreamscape complete with a video backdrop Korot would be proud of; Coldcut use samplers to recreate Music For 18 Musicians and, to finish, there’s African ensemble Konono No 1 reinventing Congotronics from Kinshasa to a pure jungle stomp. Only in The Barbican would the audience remain in their seats politely clapping rather than rush the stage as they dance in the aisles.

The evening has been one to remember. Pure Reich, taking the simplest percussive tools and weaving them into a wall of sound that is both operatic and minimal, repeating beats and motifs to the most incredible effect, deconstructing the very idea of musical performance and rebuilding it to his own design, followed by a stunning trio of modern musicians from genres often seen as diametrically opposed to his own, reminding the world how much of the electronic music of the late 20th/early 21st century has grown from his roots. Without him there might be no Fatboy Slim, no Orb nor Lemon Jelly, no sampling nor tape loops, as well as no Philip Glass nor Michael Nyman.

Reich himself has strong views on the music he makes. “We’re living in a culture where music videos are a kind of folk art,” he says. “You can get a good hit on what folk music is by looking in the window of any music store. What do you see? Samplers, amplifiers, electric guitars and keyboards – all kinds of electronics. These are street instruments.” He has recognised from the start that many of the best classical composers have looked to the folk music of their day for inspiration, from Bartok using Hungarian folk tunes in his compositions to Kurt Weill borrowing from the music halls of the Weimar Republic, and he has continued this tradition. Incorporating the jazz he grew up with to African drumming he travelled halfway across the world to understand, to the sampling keyboards of the 1980s, he has always looked as far ahead as he has into the past, ensuring that his music will move entire genres forward. In doing so, he has not only incorporated folk traditions, but helped to create new ones in the electronic, hip-hop and house music. The pop world has taken as much from him as he has from it.

As a retrospective of his work to mark his 70th birthday, Phases has presented an incredible body of work by an incredible composer – one that is destined to endure far, far into a future in which he will surely be remembered as one of the greatest and most influential composers of the 20th century. It was a century which saw music change and evolve as never before and working as he was at the very emergence of rock, the very earliest days of the electric guitar and synthesiser keyboard, he straddled the worlds of popular and classic music superbly, producing a legacy that will have a lasting and enduring effect on both.

He is a great performer, a great composer, and this has been a great, great opportunity to see the best of his work. If only there had been time for more.

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