STEVE REICH AND MUSICIANS
The Boardwalk Theatre, Mandurah,
reviewed by Anne Hodgson
Steve Reich does not need to present his credentials as a musical creator. What he writes is the music of our time and probably, as indicated by some commentators, also of the future. Reich’s music has taken his ideas around the world, and his ideas have gained acceptance and legitimacy in the contemporary mind.
As part of his appearance in the 50th Anniversary of the Festival of Perth, Reich and an ensemble of extremely talented musicians and technical practitioners moved seventy kilometres south to the city of Mandurah to present the concert entitled Drumming. This could have been a bit of a misnomer, seeing that half of the recital featured a string quartet, but whether stated or suggested, a strongly percussive element was present in all the works on the programme.
The works performed ranged from the early 1970’s to 2002, providing a broad view of Reich’s compositional thinking, and each item was fascinating from the point of view both of its construction and the skills which the performers brought to its execution. The concert began with Drumming (Part 1) from 1971- a rather stunning display of sound produced by four pairs of tuned bongo drums, played with sticks, with five performers moving in and out of the action in a sort of choreography which considerably helped one’s understanding of the highly complex texture. This was vital, driving music, but carefully controlled and calculated throughout and never in any danger of spilling over into excess, although the vibrant and curiously amusing energy of the piece was thoroughly stimulating.
It was in the second item, the Triple Quartet from 1999, that the importance of technology to Reich’s music became apparent. The version that was performed was a string quartet working with a pre-recorded tape of two other string quartets in a piece where Reich showed his mastery of contrapuntal writing and of the repetitive process. Although the composite sound of tape and live players was sometimes too hard around the edges, the musical substance was powerful and satisfying, and certainly proved that dissonance does not make for disengagement.
The third work Piano Phase/Video Phase (1967/2002) was extremely interesting, but perhaps for the wrong reason. Initially written for two pianos, it had been translated into technology and was performed brilliantly by David Cossin. The presentation was through a back-lit screen on which appeared a video image of the percussionist playing drum pads which nevertheless sounded like a piano, with a ghostly doppelgänger of the same percussionist playing the same musical material live but not at exactly the same time. The world of sound and vision technology had taken over; it was showy, it was clever, but the visual effect tended to dominate beyond the normal level of a stage performance, and rather at the expense of the musical content.
The out-of-phase aspect of time which Reich builds into much of his music was also a major element in Nagoya Marimbas of 1994, where the two players gave an outstanding performance of the piece, handling the dynamic variety and the temporal complexities of melody against melody with remarkable ability and flair.
The final work, the Different Trains of 1988, was the most programmatic item in the concert. As well as giving cause for some deep reflection on the text itself, this music set a trend for Reich which has been pursued in later works, where rhythms or images from reality generate the musical expression. The demands of this type of performance are heavy, but the string quartet, again working with a prepared tape, once more displayed a remarkable technical expertise and ensemble unity.
To hear Reich’s music live and under the composer’s control was an opportunity definitely not to be missed. Perhaps some might have felt disappointed that Reich did not discuss his work from the platform, but the music stands on its own, and the written notes were comprehensive. There is no doubt that in these compositions there are the roots of possible future trends, particularly in the area of the multi-media expression, but because Reich demonstrates his styles so thoroughly and so completely he could be a hard act to follow.
COPYRIGHT © February 2003 Anne Hodgson