Steve Reich, Bang on a Can + London Sinfonietta @ RFH

Earlier this evening I returned to the Royal Festival Hall for the first time since its major refurbishment a couple of years ago. Steve Reich was performing in person, as he did when I last saw Music for 18 Musicians at the Barbican three years ago. At 73, I’m stunned that he can still manage to play such demanding stuff, but he seemed to have no problem on the piano and also performed Clapping Music to open things up.

The show properly got going with Mark Stewart‘s performance of Electric Counterpoint – one of my favourite Reich compositions. It’s a piece that Reich wrote for Pat Metheny in 1987. It’s performed by recording up to ten guitars and two electric bass parts, with the 11th part added live. The song is most notably sampled in The Orb’s “Little Fluffy Clouds” and it’s quite ear-opening to hear the work in its entirety if you’ve only heard the sample of it before. What really surprised me about seeing it live was the remarkable amounts of bass in the delayed swoops of guitar that return throughout. This also revealed how good the acoustic refurbishment has been. It sounded great.

Next up, Bang on a Can All Stars played Sextet, which I’ve not knowingly heard before. I’m very surprised it’s not on the 5-disc Phases box set, but I suppose that’s already pretty full of good stuff. I’m rectifying this presently by picking up the mp3 release (can’t go wrong for $6).

Sextet is quite melodically complex and he does some unconventional things like bowing vibraphone to produce slow attacks and longer sustains from percussive instruments (see 2:15 in the video below). Who’d have thunk of bowing a percussive instrument? It must take a great deal of skill. It’s crazy to watch and sounds great, particularly when one bowist starts a beat or two behind the other, adding depth and duration. They also bang mallets together, use two enormous bass drums and generally do stuff to make a six-person performance produce a much wider range of sounds than you’d typically get from six instruments. I can’t wait to hear this again and feel lucky to have heard it in such an excellent acoustic space.

It’s all been said before about Music for 18 Musicians. A “joy machine” is exactly right. It’s nearly overwhelming hearing and seeing it performed live. Unfortunately this time I got a bit distracted towards the end so it lost some of its impact, but the first half of it was an intense, immersive, moving experience like few others. It’s without question one of the best pieces of music ever written.

2 thoughts on “Steve Reich, Bang on a Can + London Sinfonietta @ RFH”

  1. I saw the London Sinfonietta perform Music for 18 Musicians at the RFH in April 2007 and it was breathtaking, edge-of-the-seat tuff and has stayed with me as one of the greatest musical experiences of my life. However Saturday’s performance was even better. It felt more nuanced in it’s differing stages of intensity and complexity – from an almost peaceful dreamlike segment (sections 5 and 6) around halfway through, to an intense segment a little later pushed along by a driving beat played on maracas (section 8). It’s a truly immersive piece – a small discreet sound universe in its own right. I usually lose all track of time within about 25 seconds of it beginning. Witnessing Steve Reich play it was really something special too.

    I think Drumming is being performed there next April

  2. Hi Pete,

    It’s amazing how it transitions, at times dramatically and other times seamlessly. Occasionally you think it might be nearing the end of what it has to convey and something new seizes you.

    Reich also played when I saw him at The Barbican on his 70th birthday tour. On that occasion he switched instruments and for some reason I felt that the percussive performers then were more commanding, while the melodic side of things took hold more this time. And without question the refurbished RFH is a superior venue.

    I’ve only seen a portion of Drumming live. I’d love to see it properly, but it would take another of his best pieces to bring me out for it. I don’t seem to rate Drumming as highly as many people do.