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.