Tag Archives: Bang on a Can

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.

Steve Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians” and more at The Barbican

Made another trip back to the Barbican yesterday for the continuing celebration of Steve Reich’s 70th birthday. But first, here’s The Guardian’s brief, ** review of The Cave and another slightly more in depth one, both confirming my critique.

But Sunday was another day. We were total idiots and missed Konono 1 (again) when they were playing free that afternoon but we got there in time for the Bang on a Can All Stars, and they were good! The first song was some Michael Nyman thing that was OK. Nothing special, and perhaps a bit grating. The second was something that had been written specifically for them and it was wicked. Really mental frenetic cello and upright bass bowing. The third was a four-section song that covered loads of territory and really worked well for them. The last track was by Louis Andriesen, which was relentless psychotic cartoon music, vaguely reminiscent of Danny Elfman’s theme to Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. Gutted I missed Konono 1 earlier, but Split with Sims/Surgeon doing Frequency 7 the night before pre-empted.

The later Reich performance was totally brilliant. It opened with Cello Counterpoint, which had been written specifically for the performer. She had pre-recorded (and filmed) seven of eight parts that were broadcast on a large screen behind here, while she played the eighth part live. It’s fairly short but gripping.

The second part was the world premiere of Daniel Variations (quoted from the press thingy):

Reich puts a text from the Book of Daniel alongside words by the violinist and mandolin player Daniel Pearl, the journalist taken hostage and murdered by Islamic extremists in Pakistan in 2002.

There were twenty performers for this, with most of the same instruments as Music for Eighteen Musicians, except there were two more strings IIRC. And it was a very string-heavy piece, and heavier on the orchestration, lighter on the repetition. The singing in this was a bit too loud in the mix for my liking, and really I thought it could been nixed altogether. Hannah really liked the singing though, and I reckon this just would be divisive. Still quite good on the main. Would love to hear an instrumental version, but I’m doubtful that would happen.

Finally we got to Music for Eighteen Musicians, which was every bit as brilliant as you’d expect, except twice as good for being able to appreciate the visual element of it. It was particularly cool that Reich played with them (with his distinctive baseball cap and all), although I could have sworn I heard him hit a couple of wrong notes. Still… it was absolutely gorgeous. The liveness of it is stunning. They called it a ‘joy machine’, which sums it up perfectly. The concentration it must take to play that is pretty unfathomable to me. Totally humbling and enjoyable. Made up for The Cave about 5 times over.