Steve Reich: Radio Rewrite @ the Royal Festival Hall

Setting the scene The Royal Festival Hall is sold out. My son and I have remaindered seats in the Choir ie along the side of the stage which is close enough to the performers to read the sheet music. Amid the rustling and coughing and scraping of programmes two old guys dressed in black trousers and shirts walk onstage and over to a music stand. Everyone applauds. The guys focus for a moment, nod at each other, then start clapping in unison quite a complicated rhythm. After 30 seconds the one wearing the baseball cap nods to the other and one of them starts clapping a different pattern. In fact the initial simplicity begins to change into a shifting complex of overlapping rhythms, phasing in and out of unison. On an instrumental level, this is primitive music. All you need is hands. Yet it is ultra-sophisticated. You need to be trained to a high level to learn the patterns and then implement their slow mutations while someone else is clapping something completely different right next to you.

The piece is Clapping Music (1972), an early classic from New York composer Steve Reich, founding father and grand old man of musical minimalism and Steve is here, tonight, wearing his trademark baseball cap, and performing it in person.

Steve (the Reich is pronounced with a soft -sh sound at the end, as I discovered at a day of Reish events last year – and everyone calls him Steve) will turn 77 this year but he’s still very active, both composing and performing. He’s a frequent visitor to England, with concerts of his work every year at the Barbican or South Bank.

Photo of Steve Reich against the New York skyline

Steve Reich (photo credit: Jeffrey Herman)

The concert But this concert wasn’t looking back to those early days when his pieces were created for minimal instruments because that’s all he could afford; instead it had a much more modern, rocky feel, dominated by the electric guitar, bass and drums used in all the other 4 pieces. At this concert the London Sinfonietta, well-known for its performance and commissioning of contemporary classical music, performed two pieces from the past few years as well as the World Premiere of ‘Radio Rewrite’, a co-commission by the London Sinfonietta along with New York’s Alarm Will Sound. Eyebrows were raised when people learned that ‘Radio Rewrite’ is based on two songs by the rock band Radiohead, see the Q&A, below.

The concert was taped by BBC Radio 3 and was available for 7 days, but now only the Radio rewrite section seems to be available. I link to it below and to YouTube versions of the other tracks.

Part One

Clapping Music (1972)
Electric Counterpoint (1987)
2×5 (2008)

Part Two

Radio Rewrite (2012) (after an interview with Radio 3’s Andrew McGregor)
Double Sextet (2007)

A review If you listen to a piece like 2×5 (written six years ago for New York bass ensemble, Bang On A Can) you can hear why Reich is so popular with a wide “crossover” audience. With its drums, bass and guitar, it is in effect a piece of experimental rock music. It reminds me of the early 70s King Crimson I’ve been listening to recently in its unrelentingness, its singlemindedness. The interest isn’t in melody or harmony – what most people want from their classical or pop music. It’s in the phasing or overlapping changing of rhythmic fragments – it’s in the piling on of instrumentation to create layers of sound – it’s in shifting rhythms and textures.

(Speaking of textures and prog rock, the rumbly bass sound of a bass playing picky, non-swining ostinati, set against lattices of filigree guitar notes, reminded me a lot of the rumbly bass in some passages of Tubular Bells.)

I confess I find some Reich works hard to listen to. I’ve got the Nonesuch box set and the obsessively tight repetition of tones and rhythms of some of the pieces – or of too many pieces listened together – can give you a headache. But I found all the pieces tonight very listenable and none too long.

I think I agree with my son that ‘Electric Counterpoint’ stood out because of the clarity of the textures. Pat Metheny recorded 10 guitars and 2 basses performing complicated tessalations of sound onto a backing tape, and then an electric guitarist – tonight Swedish guitarist Mats Bergstrom – performs an 11th part live, against the tape. A tracery of fine and precise notes are set against insistent and complex dotted rhythms which themselves grow louder and softer according to a much larger, slower pulse – like fine lace floating on an advancing and receding wave.

‘Radio Rewrite’, like so many of Reich’s pieces is divided into sections named simply slow or fast, in this case fast-slow-fast-slow-fast, the fast sections based on the song Jigsaw, the slows ones on Everything. It has the lightness of his later, rockier work, a sense of the instruments dancing daintily – but countering that is the distinctively edgy timbre created by combining violin and clarinet, almost screechy at time – then again given a strange luminosity of sound by the twinned vibraphones glowing around them. I don’t think I know anything by Reich as slow and thoughtful as the slow movements of this new piece. We loved it!

Q&A Nice surprise after the gig was a 10 minute Q&A with the great man. When asked why he was working with songs written by a rock band,

  • Steve explained why the specific chord structures of the two songs in question (Everything In its Right Place and Jigsaw Falling Into Place) piqued his interest and set his juices flowing (he also admitted there was not much of the songs left once he’d finished with them. I listened very closely and I didn’t recognise a single aural reference to either); but then…
  • Steve went on to give a potted history of Western music from medieval times to the present day, pointing out that all the great composers enjoyed a two-way relationship with the popular and folk music of their times right up until the 1950s and the dominance of the International Serialist music effectively banned melody, harmony and anything the ear could latch onto – and that this one, exceptionally ivory-tower period just happened to be when he was studying music 😦 This got a big laugh, all the more so for being true. The way he sees it, he and Philip Glass and a few others were consciously overthrowing the International Style and restoring a much more open relationship with the music they heard all around them in New York – jazz and rock and film music. Creating composed music from the pop music of the day? – he’s only returning to the practice of almost all classical composers.

Steve Reich’s website

Alex Petridis interviews Steve Reich in the Guardian

Webern and the Second Viennese School @ the Queen Elizabeth Hall

29 January 2013

To the Queen Elizabeth Hall for the latest in the year-long Rest Is Noise festival. These early weeks are focusing on the composers of the Second Viennese School ie Schoenberg the father and Berg and Webern his students, who began to write their influential works in the years just before the Great War. If Schoenberg is the transitional figure who picks up late Romantic chromaticism and moves into the territory of pure atonality, his students began at that position and explored its ramifications. Berg was able to use atonality to build surprisingly large structures including his brilliant Violin Concerto and even two operas, ‘Wozzeck’ and ‘Lulu’. Webern, on the other hand, is famous in musical history for developing the ideas of atonality and serialism into works of astonishing compression and brevity. Many of his works are only a minute long, with no melody, no harmony, just the rigour of his mathematical application of the method of serialism.

I remember first learning about this and expecting the resulting music to be harsh and dissonant – and so being astonished to encounter the precise, crystalline structures of these micro-pieces, sharp and unearthly like stars in a cold sky.

The performance was by the London Sinfonietta with Baldur Brönnimann conductor, Sarah Gabriel soprano and Lightmap video design. Sarah’s singing was impassioned. She wore a stunning strapless dress in the first half, and another black velvet number in part two. The video was a continual projection in the background of b&w footage of pre-War Vienna and images of the composers, along with texts in German and English of the songs, quotes from the composers including one from Webern from which one word at a time slowly faded as the music played.

Videos at classical concerts seem to be the fashion – there was a video at Gavin Bryars’s Titanic, the film of Koyaanisqatsi at the Barbican, and during the other weekend’s Pierrot Lunaire at the Festival Hall they projected a loop of b&w images of the century.

It was interesting to hear Schoenberg’s orchestral pieces for the second time in a fortnight, in a different and more edgy arrangement. But both Berg and Schoenberg seem normal next to the other worldly miniaturism of Webern. No-one else has ever written so intensely. Every note is vital. In a post-concert panel discussion the conductor, Baldur Brönnimann, said it’s tricky to conduct because everything you do spoils it, it has such Platonic purity.

Discussion panel This after-concert panel was excellent, including an academic expert on Webern, Baldur the conductor, Peter the viola player and Netia Jones who produced the video. They all had interesting things to say. The viola player said the music is so intense because behind every phrase, behind every pair of notes, is the entire German tradition. The academic pointed out that Webern saw himself as a Romantic – his inspiration came from an obsessive worship of Nature and high mountains as well as mourning for his dead mother. In other words, as Baldur emphasises, the 1950s and 60s did Webern a disservice by making him the messiah of the new religion of atonality, performing his music as mathematically strict and antiseptic. Now, 50 years later, he said, we can see the music more fully, stripped of 60s ideology, as deriving directly from its Romantic German antecedents in its concern with expressivity, albeit taken to unprecedented heights.

My favourite work was the three little pieces for cello. It makes so much difference to see these works performed live. The drama and intensity of real performers producing these extraordinary sounds really hit you as they can’t on a recording.

Anton Webern: 3 Lieder
Arnold Schoenberg: 5 Orchestral Pieces, Op.16
Anton Webern: 6 Pieces for orchestra, Op.6
Anton Webern: 5 Pieces for small orchestra, Op.10
Anton Webern: 3 Volkstexte (Three Traditional Rhymes) for soprano & ensemble, Op.17
Anton Webern: Symphony, Op.21
Alban Berg: 4 Pieces for clarinet and piano, Op.5
Anton Webern: 3 Little Pieces for cello & piano, Op.11
Anton Webern: Concerto for 9 instruments, Op.24

Black and white photo of Anton Webern

Anton Webern (1883-1945) Source: Wikimedia Commons

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