José Mourinho said ‘the world would stop’ to watch Real Madrid play Manchester United in the Champions League. At the Southbank Centre, however, life went on regardless as we witnessed the newest chapter in the extraordinary career of ‘America’s greatest living composer’, Steve Reich.

And whilst the sporting contest was ruined by an attention-seeking referee, not even the limp, insipid 2×5 and a phoned-in performance of Clapping Music could detract from the vivacious and brilliant Radio Rewrite, which received its world premiere here alongside a few firm favourites.

 

 

Composer Steve Reich’s career is dotted with chance encounters with popular musicians; he talks frequently about meeting a lipstick-sporting Eno in London and catching Bowie at a Berlin performance of Music for Eighteen Musicians. Influence flowed both ways: we think of Eno’s process-driven Discreet Music and Bowie’s mallet-heavy second half of Low, but also Reich writing for the electric guitar (Electric Counterpoint). Recently, the composer made a major, and uncharacteristic misstep with the ‘rock chamber ensemble’ piece, 2×5. But Radio Rewrite, based on two Radiohead songs, looks to have righted this wrong. It is evidence that Steve Reich still believes in the ‘open door’ policy between the concert hall and the street that he so loves to talk about, and that it can produce music of real quality, as well as dross.

Steve Reich met Jonny Greenwood when he was performing Electric Counterpoint in Krakow, 2011. Whilst investigating Greenwood’s compositions and his work with Radiohead, Reich found himself particularly drawn to Jigsaw Falling Into Place and Everything in its Right Place. I find myself slightly envious of Reich, appreciating these songs on their own terms, free of the cultural discourse around Radiohead we all know and are burdened by – Reich, by his own admission, barely listens to and knows little about the rock world. At yesterday’s premiere, I guess, were Radiohead fans making the reverse journey into the unfamiliar, and yet completely familiar, world of minimalist/post-minimalist music.

Radio Rewrite draws on these two ‘popular’ themes for a composition of Reich’s own invention. Steve Reich cites renaissance settings of folk tunes, the nineteenth century craze for variations, and his own interpretations of Perotin and Sondheim, as historical precedents for this, but the remix is just as apt an analogy. The piece is scored for flute, clarinet, two vibraphones, two pianos, string quartet, and electric bass, and is in five short movements without pause.

The first movement explored the opening chords of Jigsaw Falling Into Place in the buoyant rhythmic style of Reich’s Variations for Vibes, Piano and Strings (2005) and Double Sextet (2007). This eased into a slow, tintinnabulating take on Everything in its Right Place, with clustered harmonies interspersed by chiming root-fifth ‘everything’s, which Reich says are a kind of musical joke (the perfect cadence is ‘everything’ in the world of Western classical music, and yet here it is competing with a harmonic world of greater complexity and ambiguity). Next, it was the melodies of Jigsaw Falling Into Place that received the Reichian treatment, reeled from violins in the lyrical, folky manner of Reich’s Eight Lines (1983). This most accessible, and most recognizable, moment passed into a dense fog, only peripherally related to Everything in its Right Place. This was brief respite before the whirlwind of the fifth and final movement, where ecstatic ostinatos in the left hand of the piano begat furious homophony in the melody instruments, and huge chords stereophonically bounced around the ensemble to finish: an unexpected and effective ending with no precedents in Reich’s own music, reminding me more of John Adams’ Harmonielehre and Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Gruppen. The piece is a triumph and left me floored.

The concert had started less auspiciously, however, with the 1972 piece Clapping Music. In the right hands, the piece still brings the house down. It is the bridge between Reich’s early conceptual works (Pendulum Music, the ‘phase’ pieces), and the shamelessly listenable regular pulse pieces that started with Music for Eighteen Musicians (1974-76), and is therefore an important part of the canon. Unfortunately, Steve Reich, appearing here in his guise as performer, has nothing like a steady pulse, and is far from a safe pair of hands. The tempo was too slow and he made frequent mistakes. Clapping Music does not require the one-man heroics of Glenn Kotche (see here from 0:40) and Evelyn Glennie (see here), nor the theatrics of the Gandin juggling troupe (see here) – brilliant though their versions are – to remain relevant. It does, however, demand enthusiasm, and Reich and London Sinfonietta percussionist David Hockings failed to deliver this.

Far better was Electric Counterpoint (1987) for electric guitar and tape, performed by Mats Bergström. Bergström is, arguably, the finest performer of this work, though Jonny Greenwood’s interpretation is also notable. Electric Counterpoint usually suffers from solo guitarists failing to match the tone of Pat Metheny’s guitars on the original backing tape. But, both Bergström and Greenwood circumvent this problem by making their own recordings for playback, an extra effort that results in superior performances. Playing from memory and looking effortlessly cool, Bergström paced his performance so that, by the third movement – unashamedly my favourite thing Reich has written – he was roaming the stage, finger-dancing and counting out loud during rests. There were a few uncharacteristic mistakes, but these were representative of his exuberance, not sloppiness.

2×5 (2008) for a chamber ensemble of rock instruments playing against a recorded simulacrum of itself, closed the first half. In the past, I have been an apologist for this work; Mats Bergström’s recording is acceptable, and the piece had a certain frisson when I saw it performed by Bang on a Can at the doomed Bloc festival, but tonight I gave up on it. The part writing is bad, out of range for the guitars so they have to use octave pedals which track horribly and produce unintended portamentos. The drum kit part is aimless too, never threatening to break into a groove. It is baffling how Reich, himself a drummer, could write such guff. At the talk afterwards, Reich said he was ‘a great believer in trashing bad music’. 2×5 should have been consigned to the trash bin of his Apple Mac. With any luck, Radio Rewrite will now be replacing it in concert programmes.

Double Sextet suffered only from being played immediately after Radio Rewrite. On reflection, it is probably the superior piece, but in the moment, it felt perhaps like too much of a good thing. It was expertly played, and special mention has to go to the outstandingly-mustachioed Michael Cox on the flute, who appears to have modeled his look on Kaiser Wilhelm I. It was pleasing too to see the piece performed with twelve musicians, rather than six and the other six on tape.

The lingering question now is, which Reich will we hear in Quartet, the composer’s next piece, due to be premiered in London next year? The composer of bad prog-rock dead end 2×5? Or the surprising, still relevant creator of Radio Rewrite? After tonight’s extraordinary, assumption-challenging new work, let us hope for more of the different.

We saw the Royal Festival Hall performance on 05/03/13

words Thom Hosken

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