Robert Rauschenberg @ Tate Modern

This exhibition is a gas, I can’t remember laughing so much at a show for ages. It’s a big one, the biggest retrospective of Rauschenberg’s art for a generation, and he worked for six decades – from the 1940s to the 2000s (his dates are 1925 – 2008) – covering a lot of ground, producing a huge body of work.

I’ve recently read history books about the Second World War in the Pacific, the Korean War, the Cold War, and the Vietnam War. The major theme which emerges from all of them is the incredible, overwhelming power and wealth of America as it emerged from WW2 to be the first superpower in world history, capable of projecting bottomless economic aid and phenomenal military force right around the world, from Korea to Greece and Turkey.

Seen against this historical backdrop, the Abstract Expressionists, Rauschenberg’s generation, and then the Pop artists, represent three waves reflecting the unstoppable economic and military power of their country. As the recent show at the Royal Academy showed, the Abstract Expressionists were very interior, psychological artists, traumatised by the war, the Holocaust and the atom bomb, stuck in their new York lofts painting huge blocks of rough-edged colour or splattering the surface of the canvas with flickering expressions of existentialist angst. The Pop artists from the very end of the 1950s/dawn of the 1960s conveyed the sense of a society drowning in its own consumer products, sometimes with unironic adulation (Warhol), comic book fandom (Lichtenstein) or ironic questioning (Hamilton).

Rauschenberg falls in middle. His works are more fun, open-ended and disruptive than the serious AEs, but deliberately lack the sheen and finish of Pop. They include ready-made objects and junk found in the streets, magazine articles, random objects, and a randomised, carefree approach to cutting and combining materials and objects together. He wanted to bring the outside world into the artist’s studio.

The exhibition is in 11 big rooms which take his career chronologically introducing us to key themes and sets of works in different forms and media.

Photographer

Rauschenberg had an excellent eye as a photographer and at first considered photography as a professional career. An early set of works used photographic images and X-rays to produce experimental images of the human body.

Untitled/double Rauschenberg (c.1950) by Robert Rauschenberg

Untitled/double Rauschenberg (c.1950) by Robert Rauschenberg

Beginnings

Rauschenberg was born in 1925 and grew up in Port Arthur Texas, surrounded by big open spaces and the oil industry. Enrolled in the US Navy he saw his first art gallery in California, used his G.I. Bill money to travel to Paris where he studied art and met his wife-to-be, Susan Weil. Back in the States she enrolled in the experimental Black Mountain College in North Carolina where Rauschenberg quickly became a major player.

Hundreds of books have been written about the college, founded by exiles from the Bauhaus in Germany, who taught a complete integration of all the arts, with no gap between ‘fine’ and ‘applied’. Experimental poets, playwrights, artists, painters, sculptors, composers and choreographers worked together and exchanged ideas. It was the setting for the first ‘happenings’ and multi-media experiments which were to become so widespread in the 1960s.

Here he met the composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham. Rauschenberg created sets and backdrops for performances of avant-garde dance to Cage’s avant-garde scores, and was to remain involved in dance for decades. He painted a set of pure white canvases, using industrial paint and rollers to achieve no surface texture. The idea was that the art was the change of light and shadow, the drift of motes of dust, across the surface. Apparently this helped inspire Cage’s most famous work, 4’33”, in which the performer comes on stage, opens the piano and sits there without moving. The ‘art’ is in the audience being forced to pay attention, not to the silence (for there is never silence) but to the ambient sounds around them. It creates a Buddhist-style act of attention and focus.

‘The world around him’ could have been Rauschenberg’s motto. Whereas the Abstract Expressionists for the most part stayed inside their New York loft studios, Rauschenberg opened the windows and doors to let in the big dirty world, and went out a-walking through it to see what he could see, and then to create works which brought the ‘outside’ into art.

Hence Automobile Tire print (1951) in which he got twenty or so bits of common or garden typewriter paper, glued them together, then rang up Cage and asked him to come round in his Model A Ford. They applied black paint to the car’s tyre then Cage drove very slowly and carefully along the paper. Voilà!

The audiocommentary for this show is brilliant and nods to Rauschenberg’s love of collage, cutting up and mixing and matching, by having voices of the various curators interrupting each other, contributing questions and answers chopped up and sampled, alongside snippets of Rauschenberg himself from old interviews.

What comes over most is the laughter. Like Cage, Rauschenberg seems to have hugely enjoyed life and saw ‘art’ as a way of extending and exploring that enjoyment. He tells us it was a rainy day, and it was damn hard to get the paper to stay glued together.

The sense of humour comes over in what came to be known as the ‘Combines’ series, paintings made ‘awkward’ by the addition of objects. An example is Bed, a duvet and pillow stuck to a canvas and then spurted with oil paint, pencil, toothpaste and red fingernail polish. Rauschenberg gets a laugh on an interview snippet on the commentary by saying that up till then the quilt had been used to put over the radiator of his knackered car to keep it warm in the New York winter.

Bed (1955) by Robert Rauschenberg. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York

Bed (1955) by Robert Rauschenberg. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York

Junk and Arte Povera

The artist’s poverty is a running thread. The small set of boxes containing found objects, nails, insects, in room one are really the function of extreme poverty. The ‘Combines’ include works which have electric light bulbs, radios, fans, and alarm clocks embedded in them or tacked on them.

Her worked with what came to hand, what was outside on the streets, junk, wood, the cardboard boxes which are the material for a whole set of works later, in the 1990s, wood, tyres – the detritus of America’s booming consumer society.

A standout work from the period is Monogram. He came across a stuffed angora goat in a local junk shop and persuaded the owner to sell it to him, though he couldn’t afford the full $30 cost. Back in the studio he knew he had to do something to make it into ‘art’, and so tried painting its face. wedging it against a combine painting backdrop, or on a combine painting, but none of it really worked. In fact it was only a few years later when he had the idea of using a tyre which was lying around in the studio, slipping it round the goat’s belly that, he says, the thing was finally finished and – as he says on the audioguide, to appreciative laughter – the various elements of the work ‘lived happily ever after’.

Monogram (1955-59) by Robert Rauschenberg. Moderna Museet, Stockholm. © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York

Monogram (1955-59) by Robert Rauschenberg. Moderna Museet, Stockholm. © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York

Performance

Mention has been made of his involvement in ballet productions, and he went on a world tour with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, creating sets and backdrops, often spontaneously from objects found near the theatres. In the later 1950s Rauschenberg staged performances, especially in the creation of ‘combines’. We are told about one which he created in front of a gallery audience using paint and all sorts of objects, including an alarm clock which he set at the start. When the alarm clock rang, the work was finished.

Silk screens

In the late 1950s Rauschenberg discovered that if you apply lighter fluid to the images in glossy magazines, place the page on blank paper and rub it, the image transfers to the white paper, often distressed. Do it with multiple images and you have a collage. Using this technique he created a set of drawings to illustrate Dante’s Divine Inferno, and 20 or so are on display here. They look a bit scrappy at first, but if you look carefully, images begin to emerge, of police, weightlifters, American street scenes, which have a strange appropriateness to Dante’s visions of hell. (Compare and contrast the recent exhibition of Botticelli’s illustrations of Dante. Of course, contemporary references and events is precisely the point of the Divine Comedy)

In 1962, at the same time as Andy Warhol, Rauschenberg began experimenting with making paintings using silk screens, a technique previously restricted to commercial printing. Whereas Warhol’s silks tend to be of one iconic image (Botticelli’s Venus, Marilyn Monroe, Mao, Elvis) Rauschenberg’s are always collages of multiple images and use a far wider range of imagery, including political and social imagery. To the casual viewer (like myself) these are probably his best-known works and the image chosen as poster for the show, the best-known.

Retroactive II (1964) by Robert Rauschenberg © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York. Photo: Nathan Keay © MCA Chicago

Retroactive II (1964) by Robert Rauschenberg © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York. Photo: Nathan Keay © MCA Chicago

Having a roomful of these works all together allows us to see how snippets or individual images are re-used: for example, the classical painting of a woman looking at her own reflection is repositioned as the main feature of Persimmon, the Army truck at the top reappears in other images, and several works feature the same image of mosquitoes, recast, recoloured, with different croppings.

It’s difficult to pin down what makes these works so arresting. First and foremost they are already acute and carefully chosen images, themselves the result of other people’s professional labours – for example, of the photographer who took the Kennedy image and then the newspaper or magazine designers who cropped and positioned it – and many of the other magazine images – just so.

But the assembly of these already-burnished images together creates strange emotions – in one mood they can be experienced as vibrant and exciting depictions of America Superpower, with its go-ahead young president, its space-age technology and so on. But the same montage can also be deeply poignant, recalling a vanished era, with its vanished hopes, assassinated presidents and failed technology.

Performance

In 1964 Rauschenberg broke with the Cunningham Dance Company and formed a new company with his partner, dancer Steve Paxton. Initially he created the sets, as usual, but then experimented with choreography and even performing himself. A video here shows an entrancing work called Pelican where Rauschenberg and another performer move around the stage on roller skates with parachutes attached to their backs. It looks wonderful.

A big space is devoted to the installation titled Oracle (1962-65), ‘a multi-part sculpture made from scrap metal which contained wireless microphone systems, which could be moved around and choreographed in any configuration’. The showerhead in the middle actually spouts pouring water, and concealed loudspeakers play noises and snippets of radio music. This reminded me a lot of John Cage’s hilarious Water Walk as performed live on American TV in 1960.

You get the idea. The richness and power of America isn’t represented by diamonds and tall buildings: the opposite; a lot of this stuff is ramshackle and jimmy-rigged in the extreme. It’s the confidence of these artists, that they can now do whatever they want to, having completely thrown off the chains of the European tradition. If Cage says sitting at a piano without doing a thing is art – then it is, dammit! In another room in the show, if Rauschenberg builds a big metal tank containing 1,000 gallons of bentonite clay mixed with mud, through which pipes blow air which spurts and erupts as geyser-like bubbles on the muddy surface and calls it ‘art’ – then, why not?

After the 60s

Like a lot of artists of the time, Rauschenberg was exhausted by the end of the 1960s. In pop music I think of the famous performers who all managed to die in and around 1970 (Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison). The whole culture seemed to have become too frenetic and cluttered. Bob Dylan and John Lennon who in their different ways had contributed to the sense of clutter, of psychedelic lyrics packed with references and images, both eventually rejected the whole thing, rolling back to simple folk in Dylan’s case, or a man dressed in white in an empty room playing a white piano, as in Lennon’s Imagine.

In art music, the impenetrably complex mathematically-derived music of serialism began to give way to the repetitive rhythms and simple harmonics of New York pals Philip Glass and Steve Reich which would become known as minimalism. In American art, an art movement also known as minimalism, led by Sol LeWitt, Donald Judd, and Robert Morris, represented a wish to declutter and simplify.

In tune with the mood of the times, Rauschenberg left New York City, his home and inspiration for 20 years, to resettle in Captiva of the coast of Florida, in what looks like an amazing house built on stilts in the ocean.

Deprived of the endless bric-a-brac to be found in New York Rauschenberg chose his materials more carefully and used them to create large, spare, simpler works. One series became known as the Cardboards, for the way they are made of cardboard boxes reworked into large shapes and patterns. Didn’t do much for me. On the other hand, I really like the series known as ‘Jammers’, inspired by the colours and fabrics he encountered on a trip to India in 1975.

Untitled (Venetian) could be a work by one of the Italian Arte Povera artists, which feature elsewhere in Tate Modern, made from large-scale industrial cast-offs and waste material.

One of my favourite works form the show was Albino (Jammer) – four bamboo posts leaning against the wall. On the wall is a rectangle of white fabric and each of the posts is wrapped in the same white fabric. Simple as that. It obviously relates back to the white canvas squares from early in his career, but now more mature, deeper. For me the quietness, dignity, simplicity of the rectangle is beautifully dramatised and energised by the leaning posts.

Abroad

The pop culture I grew up with was all played out by the early 1980s: prog rock, heavy metal, glam rock, disco gave way to punk then post-punk, industrial, Goth and so on. I was struck by how John Peel’s successor Andy Kershaw left the European tradition altogether and, along with other intelligent rock lovers of the period, began to explore world music, and anybody who turned on Radio 1 late at night was likely to hear music from Burundi and Mali. The trend was crystallised by Paul Simon’s best-selling album Graceland, for which he went to South Africa to find inspiration beyond the American tradition and work with vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

Room nine in the exhibition tells us that Rauschenberg undertook a campaign of travel to exotic countries as part of a project he titled the ‘Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Exchange’. Between 1982 and 1990 he visited China, Mexico, Chile, Venezuela, Tibet, Japan, Cuba, Russia, East Germany and Malaysia, collaborating with local artists in exploring their materials and traditions, one work from each stop donated to local museums, the rest accumulating to form a travelling show. The products of this project included in this exhibition are mostly collages featuring images from local magazines.

Untitled (Spread) (1983) by Robert Rauschenberg © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York

Untitled (Spread) (1983) by Robert Rauschenberg. Solvent transfer and acrylic on wood panel, with umbrellas © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York

Much more striking is the ‘Gluts’ series. Rauschenberg revisited his hometown in Texas in 1985 and was shocked by the extent of deindustrialisation, abandoned oil wells, derelict gas stations.

The automobile was a potent symbol of American economic power, and the shameless creativity of industrial design in the 1940s and 1950s and as such is a recurrent motif in his work (think of the Tyre work from back in New York City). After two oil crises in the 1970s, those days of boundless prosperity and cheap cruising along endless highways were gone. And so was the happy-go-lucky liberalism of the 1950s and 60s. It is the 1980s of Thatcher and Reagan. Rauschenberg is quoted as saying: ‘It’s a time of glut. Greed is rampant.’ While  crooks on Wall street made undreamed-of fortunes, lots of industrial America fell into terminal decline.

The ‘Glut’ works use scrap metal, gas station signs, decayed car and industrial parts to create a series of wall reliefs and freestanding assemblages. I grew up in a petrol station, with the smell of petrol in my nose all day long, the oily sheen on the puddles out front, piles of knackered tyres out back of the tyre change bay, the sound of compressed air pumps which inflate the inner tubes and the machines which derimmed old tyres. I’ve always liked art made from the wreck of our ruinous industrial civilisation. The Glut series do this in excelsis, and are all the more poignant for hearkening back to Rauschenberg’s earliest inspirational use of the junk he found in the streets around his New York base.

Glacial Decoy and Photography

In 1979 Rauschenberg embarked on a 16-year collaboration with choreographer Trisha Brown. In one example of their work, Glacial Decoy, four performers dance in front of an enormous screen onto which are projected four large black-and-white stills of photographs taken by Rauschenberg. New slides appear every few seconds with a very audible click from the projector.

A whole darkened room is devoted to this slide show, each photo projected onto the wall ten or twelve feet tall. There were 620 slides and they are a revelation. They show that Rauschenberg was an extraordinarily talented photographer. All the images are very good and a lot of them are brilliantly evocative – poignant black-and-white images of brick walls, wooden steps, abandoned tyres, lilies, freight trains, roadside flagpoles, on and on, a wonderfully rich and haunting cornucopia of images of American life.

For me these slides revealed the bedrock of Rauschenberg’s artistry, which is his extraordinary ‘eye’ for composition, for imagery, for finding and combining beauty in the everyday, in magazine pictures, found objects, industrial bric-a-brac, cardboard boxes, car speedometers, the readymade junk of our civilisation.

Scenarios and Runts

Rauschenberg’s perfect judgement of how to combine, crop, place, position and work images is still very much in evidence in the final works in the last room, in which photography in fact became more central and prominent in his practice. Using newly developed water-soluble printing techniques, he mounted prints onto polylaminate supports before transferring them to the very large final works – enormous digital photograph montages.

Right up to these final paintings you have the sense of an artist who really did experiment, push the boundaries, try out new things, determined to bring the whole world into modern art and, whenever you hear snippets of him being interviewed, laughing and joking and enjoying himself hugely in the process.

This is a wonderful, eye-opening, life-affirming exhibition.

P.S.

60 years of art and not a single naked body, no tits or bums anywhere: human faces or human bodies are only included in works as semi-abstract shapes, as elements of composition. This near absence of the human face or figure emphasises Rauschenberg’s focus on the man-made, 20th century, industrialised world around us, a really genuinely modern art of the world we step out our front door and start tripping over.


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Other reviews of Tate exhibitions

The Rest Is Noise 11: Superpower

Last weekend it was composers in Russia and the Soviet bloc; this weekend The Rest Is Noise festival focused on composers in 1970s and 80s America – which meant overwhelmingly the minimalism of Steve Reich and Philip Glass who were both in town to perform live with their ensembles, one on Saturday, one on Sunday night. As usual, each day was crammed with lectures, presentations, discussion panels, free concerts and film screenings and it’s the work of several hours just to decide which one to go to and which ones, therefore, to miss.

Saturday 9 November 2013

10.30-11.30 Robert Spitzer: Superpower? Robert Spitzer, Professor of Political Science at the State University of New York, dapper in his pressed brown trousers, blue blazer and poppy, gave a learned, even-handed overview of the main themes in US politics between 1960 and the 1980s:

  • Nuclear war The most amazing fact of the 20th century is that we’re still here and alive, despite the fact that two military giants armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons faced each other in hostility for 45 years. The Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 is where it came closest to the brink and JFK deserves huge credit for rejecting the ‘first strike’ recommendation of his military and demanding a third way, the face-saving climbdown which was finally adopted.
  • Civil rights Following Martin Luther King’ speech in Washington 1963, black civil rights became a dominant political issue in the 60s, the subject of numerous Constitutional amendments and state laws to free Afro-Americans from discrimination. 50 years later, in 1912, the number of black votes for the first time exceeded the number of whites, and America had a black President.
  • Women’s Liberation Through the 1970s the Women’s Movement campaigned for change and, through the ’80s and ’90s a series of legislation was passed to give women full equal rights. Politically the tipping point is 1980 when for the first time more women voted than men and with a detectably distinct agenda: suspicion of foreign wars and support of social welfare programmes. Despite all this the gender pay gap remains obstinately stuck at women earning an average 80% of men’s average earnings.
  • Vietnam 1969 represented the peak of US commitment to the Vietnam War, with some 550,000 troops in theatre. Spitzer says part of the problem was President Lyndon Johnson lacked confidence, unsure what to do next but certain that he didn’t want to go down in history as the first US president to lose a war. The war cast a huge shadow; socially it divided the country and spawned a generation of radicalism. The social radicalism may all be long gone now, but the shadow still influences the US military who want to avoid putting boots on the ground if possible and want to have a clear exit strategy from foreign entanglements.
  • Richard Nixon without doubt the strangest man to occupy the presidency: credit to him for his policy of Détente with the Soviet Union and to the breakthrough discussions with up-till-then dangerously isolationist China. However, the Watergate break-in in 1972 led through a long series of court proceedings to the threat of impeachment at which point he was forced to resign in August 1974.
  • Fiscal crisis The mid-70s saw America experience a new type of financial crisis, Stagflation: economic depression combined with inflation (presumably in part caused by the oil crisis) with widespread unemployment and a sense of urban decay and pessimism (see Luc Sante’s talk, below).
  • Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980 with a remit to restore Americas pride, battered by Vietnam, and to sort out the economy. He succeeded in both which is why he remains an icon to many Americans to this day.
    • Trickle down economics Reagan was influenced by the economist Arthur Laffer who said if you cut taxes to a bare minimum you will increase government revenue because entrepreneurs and business will keep more money, circulate it to their shareholders and employees who will earn more and spend more and generate more tax. So Reagan slashed taxes. History has proved him wrong. In fact government revenue declined and what happened was the richest 1% of the US became steadily richer until nowadays the US is entrenched as the most unequal society on earth, with no sign of that changing.
    • Star wars But at the same time Reagan embarked on a vast refunding of the US military, including ambitious plans for a Strategic Defense Initiative, a space-based defence against missile attack. In part the scale of the US commitment to its military helped decide the new Soviet leader Mikhael Gorbachev that an arms race against the Americans was unwinnable. In the conservative view it was Reagan’s staunch standing up for the West that led the USSR to crumble and fall.
    • The deficit From 1789 to 1980 the US racked up $1 trillion in government debt: Reagan’s vast spending on the military combined with his tax cutting meant that by 1984 the US deficit was $2 trillion, and by 1988 $3 trillion. And so the US was set on the course it has followed up to the present day of trying to cut taxes to please conservatives but continue paying for the biggest military in the world and its evergrowing welfare bill. Result: the largest government deficit in history and recurrent political crises as the political classes fail to untie this knot. In this respect all US fiscal policy has been footnotes to the fundamental change of mindset inaugurated by Reagan.

12-1pm Keith Potter: The Birth of Minimalism Goldsmiths University lecturer Keith Potter has written widely about minimalism and edited academic books on the subject. His talk was dense and allusive and a little hard to follow at times. Highlights seemed to be: there is a well-acknowledged Big Four of minimalism – La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Philip Glass of whom the first two have remained in underground, experimental cult status and the latter two have gone on to global superstardom. Predictably, of all The Rest is Noise’s 100 concerts the Glass one and the Reich one sold out immediately. They are pop stars.

The Big Four were all born between 1935 and 1937 ie are now well into their 70s. La Monte Young comes from an avant-garde background in which there was an influence of drugs, mystic states, Eastern religion, meditation, happenings and performance art. He developed an interest in drones, notes sustained for a long time, sometimes hours, sometimes in experimental pieces for days or even months. Terry Riley’s In C calls for the repetition of small cells or fragments, a performance lasts well over an hour. Reich’s early tape pieces It’s Gonna Rain (1965) and Come Out (1966) have been studied to death but Potter points out that they aren’t the slow steady phase shift which Reich himself claims, more a kind of stuck-record affect. But Reich then applies the phasing insight to Clapping Music (1972) and Four Organs (1970) and the rest is history as he explores the impact of minute additive processes ie various instruments playing the same thing but going very slightly out of sync, something which had never been tried before in classical music and is difficult to notate. From this insight comes his extraordinarily successful career producing numerous works of clean, bright, repetitive, pulsing music.

Reich and Glass knew each other, worked with each other, put on performances in 60s art galleries and Potter referred to the well-known connection with the parallel movement of minimalism in Art associated with Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, Richard Serra and Robert Morris. Back to basic, clearly laid out, distinct elements of art: blocks, fabrics, big bits of metal. Glass, as everybody knows, developed a more lucid, poppy, instantly accessible version of the style based on repetitive arpeggios and simple harmonic progressions, which as made his style immediately recognisable and easily applied in adverts and any TV documentary about cities.

think Potter said the breakthrough year is variously ascribed to 1974 or 1976, the latter year seeing Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians and Glass’s opera Einstein on the Beach, both of which feature a return to complete tonality especially in the closing sections ie the definitive ending of serialism and the whole atonal experiment. A return to music everyone can understand and relate to. Hence their popularity. Potter namechecked Robert Fink who has, apparently, situated the rise of minimalist music in the wider US culture of soundbites, clips and excerpts, particularly of short repetitive television themes and stings, and in a wider culture based on the repetitive, semi-automated nature of industrial processes.

1-2.30pm Koyaanisqatsi The famous 1983 film was shown in the Clore Ballroom, ie the open space opposite the bar. I sat with the crowd and watched as I ate my sandwich. It certainly endorses Fink’s theory that minimalist music is particularly apt at describing the widespread repetitivity of late industrial society.

2-3pm Elliott Carter: An American Pioneer The four young wind players who make up Notus Winds played solo pieces by Carter interspersed with percussion:

I went to this concert in the Purcell Room see if I’d ‘get’ Elliott Carter this time, but I still didn’t. Whereas I’ve learned to like Boulez and love Ligeti and give Stockhausen a chance, Carter just seems like Modernism for its own sake. Brief virtuoso pieces on each instrument, which are there, force you to be alert and hear each unrepeated sequence of notes or squawks – and is forgotten as soon as experienced. It made me think there’s something wrong if ‘serious’ music forces you to choose between two equal extremes: between squawks and squalls of unrepeated sounds like Carter or barrages of insistent repetition in Reich and Glass. No wonder most of us are happy with our traditional classics and particular favourites in rock and popular music.

3.30-4.30 Luc Sante A noted writer, apparently, with a specialism in the history of New York (see his Amazon page and this interview in The Believer magazine), Luc read out a highly mannered essay (“The phrase du jour was ‘bad vibes’… weasels like us had the freedom of the city… the 1960s with their promise of effortless glamour and eternal youth….”) designed to give a sense of how rundown and rancid New York was in the 1970s, how all sorts of creative people could live among its urban ruins in poverty, and how it was all swept away by Reagan’s Yuppies and property developers in the 1980s. He was joined by American writer Sarah Schulman who suggested that the post-war GI Bill which helped returning soldiers buy homes in the newly laid-out suburbs triggered the well-known ‘White Flight‘ to the suburbs, hollowing out the city centres, which itself left them wonderfully cheap and easy for an army of developers to move in and bulldoze and refurbish and sell to the Yuppies and bankers of the 1980s. And thus the kind of cool poor Bohemia Sante and many others enjoyed was swept away, and forever, and from every major city: Paris and London are just the same, the colourful neighbourhoods made up of mixed races, social types, mixed housing arrangements, families, singletons, artists etc. All gone.

Eminent and authoritative about ‘the scene’ as Luc was, I now wish I’d gone to see the conductor Richard Bernas playing and explaining excerpts from composers of the 70s and 80s. But this is the kind of painful choice between multiple attractive events on at the same time which The Rest Is Noise forces you to make.

*****************************

Sunday 10 November

10.30-11.30am Breakfast with Glass and Reich The disturbingly young and enthusiastic composer John Barber had us all on our feet performing the opening of Reich’s Clapping Music (1972). He repeated Reich’s well-known assertion that there was no point pretending 1960s New York was 1900 Vienna or 1945 Berlin. On Broadway were glamorous shows, round the corner John Coltrane was playing. Reich felt he had to make music appropriate to his country and time.

Glass went to study in India, learning about ragas, music of great circularity and, ultimately, timelessness; Reich went to Ghana to learn about drumming and pulse. Barber said that, in his view, Glass’s music is about Being, Reich’s about Becoming. Reich’s music is very Western: it takes you on a journey from A to B, very slowly, carefully showing you everything that happens in the music. Glass’s music is higher, with its shimmer of arpeggios; Reich’s is deeper, embedded in the same groove or pulse.

Barber used the same early tape piece, It’s Gonna Rain (1965), as Professor Potter yesterday, to demonstrate the discovery of phasing, which was a bit boring. He mentioned the other phase pieces – Piano Phase (1967), Violin Phase (1967) – but then made the new (to me) point that after Steve’s trip to Ghana (1970) he came back and the phasing stopped: the new pieces just jump from one sequence to the next. And by the time of Music for 18 Musicians (1976) there is much more harmonic and dynamic variation.

11.45-12.45 Steve Reich in conversation with South Bank’s Head of Classical Music, Gillian Moore Impossible not to warm to this great, relaxed, open guy with his unstoppable enthusiasm and who just happens to be the most important composer of the late twentieth century. He described himself as “a fast talking New Yorker with a fast metabolism” and over the course of more than an hour it was hard to keep up with the flood of stories, jokes, questions, explanations and insights:

  • became a composer because he loved Bach, Stravinsky and bebop
  • people don’t pay composers till they’re old but they do pay musicians: hence he set up his own ensemble in 1966, also because he kept hearing tapes of friends’ compositions played by badly rehearsed musicians not in sympathy with the work: determined his own stuff would be performed by enthusiasts determined to play it to the highest standard.
  • he referenced John Coltrane and Africa Brass for being played on the one chord for 15 minutes and asked if people in the audience knew it and I appeared to be almost the only one, owning as a I do the disc with alternative versions of this awesome piece.
  • the Tyranny of Modernism: from 66 to 76 you HAD to compose in the International Style policed by Boulez and Stockhausen: even Stravinsky bent to it int he last works, Copeland tried and couldn’t do it; young composers had to but he didn’t want to. The thaw set in around 1976 through the 90s.
  • Can Music help us understand the Times (a premise of the entire festival)? “Not in the slightest.” If you’re writing pure music, No. If you’re writing music with a text, or opera then you choose a text which interests you and that may reflect a bit on the times. Maybe not.
  • He said loud and clear that Clapping Music (1972) was the end of phasing. He didn’t want to end up limited to being the guy who plays with tapes.
  • always liked the rhythm of the human voice, like Stockhausen’s Gesang der Junglinge for that reason and Berio (his teacher)’s Visages. Sang the praises of Berio’s wife Cathy Berberian.
  • led to an account of the origin of Different Trains (1988): was commissioned by the Kronos Quartet and initially thought of something based round recordings of Bartok in New York, but then realised writing a quartet invoking the shade of Bartok was a bad idea (laughter); then wondered if there were tapes of Wittgenstein talking, but no. Then drawn to the train journeys he took across America from one divorced parent to another and the voice of his nanny. Interviewed and taped her, then discovered other voices, notably of the conductor on those 1930s trains. And of course thought of the other trains criss-crossing Europe in the late 30s which led him to search out voices of survivors of the Holocaust. So is it his Holocaust piece? No. It’s about voices and rhythms and the rhythms of voices. But it has the Holocaust in it.
  • 1976 a breakthrough year, with Pärt’s Cantus for Benjamin Britten, Ligeti’s Self-portrait with Reich and Reich’s own Music for 18 Musicians.

Andrew Zolinsky: America’s Great Originals A concert of piano music by some late twentieth century American experimental composers, played by virtuoso pianist Andrew Zolinsky. He insisted on playing all the pieces through, with no breaks for applause. Afterwards, in conversation with BBC Radio 3’s Sarah Mohr-Pietsch, he explained they’d been chosen to create an aural journey.

Unlike the Elliott Carter yesterday, I enjoyed this, I ‘got’ the music from Meredith Monk’s very accessible jazz-inspired pieces, through the gaps and absences of Cage, to the cool, soft, melancholy fragments of the long, wonderful Feldman piece. This inspired me to seek out more works by all the composers and to keep my eyes open for future recitals by Zolinsky.

Which I guess is one of the points of the festival – to inspire and enthuse.

Milano, Teatro degli Arcimboldi. Philip Glass - Book of Longing. Immagini di Leonard Cohen ©Lelli e Masotti (Wikimedia Commons)

Milano, Teatro degli Arcimboldi. Philip Glass – Book of Longing. Immagini di Leonard Cohen ©Lelli e Masotti (Wikimedia Commons)

The Rest Is Noise 8: Post-War World

To the South Bank for the eighth study weekend in their year-long The Rest Is Noise festival; this weekend it’s the Post-War World ie the radical avant-garde music created in Europe immediately after World War II, focusing on composers from the Darmstadt School and especially on Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez. As usual Saturday and Sunday kicked off at 10am and each day was packed with lectures, workshops, film screenings leading up to an evening performance of key works.

Saturday 5 October

Breakfast with Stockhausen Enthusiastic animateur Fraser Trainer gave us a thorough backgrounding in the birth of electronic music. In 1945 music was a vacuum in Europe. Key composers had fled to America – Stravinsky, Bartok, Hindemith. Strauss was old and discredited. From the gap emerged an angry young generation determined to turn their back on the traditions of Romanticism and nationalism which had brought Europe to destruction. Stockhausen was drafted, aged 16, to ambulance duty where he saw horrors. The electronic manipulation of sound was just beginning, pioneered by Pierre Schaeffer in Paris. Radio was improving its technology. Long playing records were introduced in 1948. Stockhausen in particular took to this brave new technological environment and immersed himself in the physics of sound, using the new devices to investigate the properties of frequency, phase and amplitude, as well as the overtones created by the human voice – analysing the colour components of every noise the human voice can make, defining every element and then cunningly combining them in new and completely abstract ways. An early result was Gesang der Jünglinge (1956), which took over a year to create note by note, phrase by phrase, effect by effect. He recorded a 12 year old choir boy singing phrases from the book of Daniel, then manipulated them to be broadcast through 5 loudspeakers.

Fraser’s assistant got a volunteer from the audience to say a few words and then used her laptop music editing program to quickly create the kind of sound affects it took Stockhausen and his engineers weeks to create 60 years ago.

Donald Sassoon – from the War to the Wall Despite his name Donald turned out to be Italian, smooth, witty, charming, he took us on an entertaining tour of post war popular culture (top grossing films, James Bond novels etc), comparing Western with Eastern cultural products: his conclusion was that, whatever politicians and newspapers blared about the Cold War, on the level of popular culture both Eastern and Western popular culture largely ignored the Cold War; in fact popular narratives often shared the same shapes of lone heroes overcoming either i) the Nazis (everyone’s favourite baddies) ii) the bureaucracy; fighting the system. Suggestive thought that at bottom both sides of the iron Curtain were experiencing the same Rise of Managerial Bureaucracy.

Robert Worby – the Birth of Electronic Music By far the best presentation of the day, composer, writer and Radio 3 broadcaster Worby went back to basics: he showed just one slide which listed the physical characteristics of sound: Pitch (described by physicists as sine waves). Duration. Volume (described by physicists as amplitude). Timbre (also known in music jargon as ‘colour’). Location. Stockhausen et al set out to investigate the physical properties and combinatorial possibilities of each of these elements.

Worby explained there is a lack of vocabulary to describe these scientific elements of music; the old Italian words derive from the Renaissance; Romantic critics added vague impressionist terms; the terminology of physics is hard to manage without being an actual physicist. Anyway, sounds are not things; all sounds are processes over time.

In Paris Pierre Schaefer went out and recorded trains and street noise then manipulated them in a primitive studio, creating Musique concrète. In Germany, in the studios of Cologne Radio, Stockhausen experimented with isolating pure sine waves and then treating, combining, distorting them etc.

At this abstract level, melody is pitch mediated by duration. Stockhausen himself told Worby that, of course, you can make a ‘melody’ by varying location, as you can by varying all the other 4 elements of noise. At a stroke this explains the thinking behind Gruppen, where three orchestras play from different locations around the auditorium.

Worby did a great job of easing his audience into the world of music as seen by physicists and scientists and making us realise that, suddenly seen from this perspective, the possibilities for experimentation are endless.

Jonathan Meades – Le Corbusier and Niemayer Typifying the arrogance of most of the architects I’ve met, interviewed or read about, this lecture wasn’t at all about Le Corbusier but seemed to be Meades’ defence of Brutalist architecture made from concrete. I learned that a lot of the design and aesthetic went back to the Nazi defences along coastal France against Allied invasion. Meades referred to lots of buildings and housing estates and so on but didn’t explain the history or background of any of them and didn’t show pictures of any of them, so I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about until after he’d finished speaking and opened it up to questions from the floor when suddenly we were shown a loop of a dozen or so buildings on a screen but, typically, still with no explanation of what they were. As he proceeded Meades began to criticise more and more things, English Heritage for failing to save Brutalist buildings which have been demolished, modern architecture for its infantile colours, spineless developers, the childishness of our entire culture where adults read Harry Potter.

By the end I knew nothing whatsoever more about Le Corbu. In Lily Allen’s words, Meades was having “a little whine and a moan”. I wish I’d gone to see Tom Service playing and discussing extracts from Stockhausen, Nono, Xenakis et al which was on at the same time slot.

Meades was promoting his new book, Museum Without Walls, which this talk comprehensively put me off reading. Jeremy Clarkson for arty types. Meades’ “talk” was introduced by young Owen Hatherley whose made a name with his architecture criticism, which is collected into several recent books including A New Kind of Bleak. His “chairing” of the talk left a bit to be desired. His idea of starting the audience Q&A was to mutter, “You lot”. I’ve toyed with buying his books but, flicking through the opening chapters in Foyles, I realised his texts also amount to one long moan. Why become an architecture critic if you think so much modern architecture is ****?

Fear of Music: Why people get Rothko but don’t get Stockhausen My heart always sinks when I see ‘panel discussion’. People in the arts are all pretty much the same, middle class, middle aged, white and polite so they tend to end up agreeing and being nice about everything and this panel was a good example. It was based on a recent book (as so many of these sessions are) by David Stubbs, Fear of Music: Why People Get Rothko But Don’t Get Stockhausen. Every time he was getting into his stride he was interrupted by the moderator who went to another speaker. Maybe it would have been better as a one-man presentation with musical examples.

But some ideas struggled through:

a) Pop versus the avant-garde music

  • Accessibility: people consume pop music in a million ways, via TV shows, adverts, in films, on TV, their ipods, the internet etc. Stockhausen is hard to access. Not least because it is
  • Expensive: Stockhausen’s CDs are published by his own company and generally cost £15. Not much is on YouTube. Let alone Maderna, Nono, Xenakis.
  • Ubiquity: and you can listen to pop music in the car, at home, in the kitchen, in clubs and pubs and cinemas, almost everywhere (whether you want to or not). Modernist music – Stockhausen, Boulez – is best heard live, but it is very rarely performed anywhere. You have to really search it out to find it. It is expensive to attend. And it is in forbidding and offputting concert halls.

b) Rothko versus Stockhausen

  • Convenience: you can go to Tate Modern any day of the week, at any time that suits you, with anyone you fancy eg with kids, stroll around and wander into the Rothko room and spend as little or as long as you like, ie a few seconds, a minute if you want to. But these concert pieces can only be seen extremely rarely, in a concert hall setting, and at a time and place and date not of your choosing.
  • Ubiquity of the image: images bombard us all day long, on TV, on billboards and hoardings, in magazines and newspapers and on the internet. We are used to assimilating all kinds of weird and wonderful images in split seconds. But this music is a process which takes time. In our day and age not many people are prepared or able to invest the time required.

Electronic Music Hub Concert In a small dingy concrete room underneath the Purcell Rooms there was a concert by Royal College of Music students. This was very, very good:

  • Nono – La Fabbrica Illuminata – performed by soprano Josephine Goddard
  • Alvarez – Temazcal – maracas performed by Alun McNeil-Watson
  • Reich – New York Countrpoint – clarinet performed by Benjamin Mellfont

Evening Concert in the Queen Elizabeth Hall:


Sunday 6 October

Nuria Schoenberg-Nono, Helmut Lachenmann and Christopher Fox in conversation. Smooth, polite, urbane Mr Fox gave a very good introduction to the Darmstadt International School of Music. (Odd that there wasn’t a simple lecture/presentation on this central subject all weekend.) Maderna and Nono go in 1950, Stockhausen in 1951, Boulez in 1952. Only in 1957 does Nono refer to there being a ‘Darmstadt school’ as a style or movement. A landmark concert in 1956 of Stockhausen’s Gesang and Nono’s Il Canto Sospeso. 1958 John Cage visited.

Nuria Schoenberg-Nono is a central figure. She is Schoenberg’s daughter and she married Luigi Nono one of the central figures of the 1950s avant-garde. Brought up in her father’s Los Angeles exile she was relaxed and American and funny. Two things she said struck me: 1. it would be nice if people booed for once at a music concert; nowadays everyone is so polite and open-minded and there is no edge, no controversy, no vision or excitement. 2. The music of her father and Berg and Webern was about passion and emotion. At Darmstadt and beyond it was treated as if it was physics. Only in recent years, she said, as orchestras have become completely familiar with it, has some of the emotion and expressiveness come out which was always meant to be there.

Helmut Lachenmann is a composer from that period, a little younger the the Big Names. His German accent was thick so it was hard to hear a lot of what he said, but he a) really doesn’t like the book, the Rest Is Noise, which he thought was superficial and inaccurate – he was angry that Maderna isn’t even mentioned in it; b) he’s unhappy at the generally negative image of Darmstadt in the UK aUS, the Anglo-Saxon world: he emphasises that it wasn’t a monolithic dictatorship, there was all kinds of experimentation going on; and that all of them were united in wanting to escape from Magic Music. he recalled being a boy at the end of the War and listening to a broadcast by Goebels frothing with Nazi lies which was rounded off by a performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. For them, the entire tradition was contaminated and they were trying to create a genuinely new world.

Lachenmann’s positive vision was rather dented by a comment from the floor by someone who had attended new music festivals in Scandinavia in the 50s and compared the open, relaxed atmosphere of these with arriving at Darmstadt to find an atmosphere of tension, competition and criticism, backstabbing and rivalry. Ho hum.

Ian Buruma: Year Zero Also promoting his new book, Year Zero: A History of 1945, Buruma was brilliant. A mild-mannered, urbane man who radiated intelligence and knowledge, he chose a few themes from the book to expand:

  • People rarely study what happens after wars end. Peace in 1945 really meant chaos and confusion. It led to brutal civil war in Greece which could also easily have broken out in Italy or France. In each country the right wing had sided with the Nazis, the resistance tended to be left wing, and neither side forgot. France was saved by de Gaulle who combined right wing politics with impeccable resistance credentials, thus squaring the circle. In one sense civil wars never really go away and that explains the rise of Golden Dawn in Greece.
  • Very widespread violence against women who had collaborated. Buruma sees this as a way  for guilty men who failed to resist, taking out their resentment, and also restoring the status quo ante.
  • We can now see the end of the USSR in 1989 leading to the death of Social Democracy across Europe, the triumph of neo-Liberal economics and cultural worldview, the unravelling of the post-war consensus and the end of the optimism which fueled the avant garde.

Lunchtime Concert: Music of Change by the Guildhall Percussion Ensemble

  • Cage – Second Construction
  • Xenakis – Okho
  • Xenakis – Psappha
  • Cage – Credo in US

Lots of drumming.

Black Mountain College: by Alyce Mahon, scholar Peter Jaeger and poet Tim Atkins. This was a very good panel: Alyce gave a good history of the idealist and utopian Black Mountain college, set up in 1933 to educate without the traditional gap between teachers and students, no hierarchy, minimal fees, no payment to the tutors who got room and board, an experiment in arts education which was forced to close in 1957, set up as a kind of Bauhaus for the States. Cage and Cunningham arrived in 1948. In 1951 there was the first ever ‘happening’. In the same month Cage’s 4’33” was a homage to the influence of Rauschenberg with his all-white paintings. Cage’s music, Cunningham’s dance, Rauschenberg and de Kooning painting, Charles Olson and Robert Creeley poetry.

Jaeger was promoting  his book, John Cage and Buddhist Ecopoetics, and was wonderfully calm, lucid, intelligent and informative. He compared some of Cage’s works and saying with Zen teachings and koans. Cage said 1950s avant garde was a reincarnation of 1910s Dada; that new music was about Time not melody and that Beethoven had dulled music by obsessing about Melody and harmony, taking German music down a dead end. A very informative and civilised and well-organised session.

When asked about the influence of Olsen and Creeley’s Open or open Notation verse on English poetry, enthusiastic and tremendously knowledgeable poet Tim Atkins said, well it hasn’t really arrived here yet. Like so much 20th century art, it has just passed by an England dominated by its public school elite who continue to like traditional games, traditional values and traditional art.

Introduction to Adorno: Elise ? and Nick Lezard At university back in the 80s, because I had studied German, I sought out and read Benjamin and Adorno (and Bloch and Lukaczs) who weren’t on my English syllabus and weren’t taught. For a season Minima Moralia was my constant companion. Theodor Adorno is immersed in the German philosophical tradition whose colossus is Hegel and after Hegel, Marx. Only if you have a feel for this tradition as well as the phenomenology of the 30s and 40s, for the bitter infighting between post-Hegelians and Marxists in those stricken decades, can you get a sense of how embattled Adorno felt when he fled Germany and settled in California.

In his native land the battle for Culture was literal – degenerate artists were being executed, banned, exiled – and the Great German Musical Tradition  had undergone the sweeping revolution of Schoenberg’s twelve tone system. For Adorno the High Culture of his childhood, the Seriousness of Art which led to Schoenberg in music and Kandinsky in Art, all this was under threat, was a matter of life and death. Only by committing to the highest standards, to the most difficult and recondite Literature and Music, could artists and those who love Art possibly escape the flood of totalitarian propaganda, military marches, the dreck of jazz and pop music which was flooding the world.

Coming to California then was a profound shock. People were cruising round in big cars, having barbeques, surfing, making brainless movies about love and big musicals. America represented the death of High Culture because it provided consumers with vast floods of brainless pap. Hence Adorno’s fierce abreaction in books like Minima Moralia (a collection of aphorisms and short essays) and The Culture Industry. Typical quote: “Already for many people it is an impertinence to say ‘I'” by which he means that most people are just robots, their brains filled with the mindless newsprint, cartoons, pop music and rubbish movies churned out by the Culture Industry which is itself just an aspect of the complete triumph of consumer capitalism.

Unfortunately, none of the power, the depth, the totality of Adorno’s critique of the way consumer capitalism has curdled and corrupted our most fundamental being came over in this presentation. Adorno isn’t an author you read. He is a complete reassessment of the culture we live in and our own personal values. Nick Lezard said he thought we could still really use Adorno as a mirror to our times, and he cited the X Factor as an example. This is vastly too shallow and obvious. Adorno is saying that to the depths of our souls all of us are slaves to the shallow lying garbage of the Culture Industry. Almost none of us can have an original thought, can escape our slavery and that escape is only possible via the most severe, intense, difficult and demanding Art, which for him was Schoenberg’s Serialism. For Adorno, in the 1940s, it was all over, the Soul of the West was corrupted beyond redemption. In which case, here and now in 2013, it must be even more all over.

But it isn’t. The fundamental flaw in Adorno’s position is his False Model of Culture: it is based entirely on the strict High Art of his childhood: Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, Mahler, Schoenberg, it is the German tradition or nothing.

But of course there are thousands of traditions. At the same time Offenbach was writing his comedies and Gilbert & Sullivan theirs. As well as Schoenberg the world contained Poulenc and Vaughan Williams and Satie. My break with Adorno came when I read his criticism of Jazz which he thought embodied and continued negro slavery with its limited rhythms, its limited instrumentation and the soloist trapped within hackneyed chord sequences.

Putting down Adorno’s book, you walk away into a world full of beauty, of blue skies and flowers and the joyful sounds of all kinds of pop and rock and disco music, of musicals and world music and jazz and Burt Bacharach, let alone the thousands of types of art which blend and merge into advertising or magazine design, posters and internet layouts or apps or games.

The world is wonderfully big and rich and strange and so are the thousands of artistic and musical traditions which we can now experience more than any previous generations in human history. Adorno’s work is an intellectual and emotional and aesthetic dead end, a document from a terrible period of history shaped and constricted by the very totalitarianism impulses he was trying to escape.

Evening Concert in the Queen Elizabeth Hall with Martyn Brabbins, the London Sinfonietta & Royal Academy of Music musicians

  • Karlheinz Stockhausen: Gruppen
  • Luigi Nono: Canti per 13
  • Interval
  • Luigi Nono: Polifonica – monodia – ritmica
  • Karlheinz Stockhausen: Gruppen

Stockhausen said the concert halls hadn’t been built to properly perform his music and this was sadly true as the three orchestras performing Gruppen were located on the stage along the flanks of the hall under the boxes ie only those in the expensive Stalls seats got the full ‘in-the-round’ experience. The rest of us, the majority, in the auditorium heard the music all coming from in front of us. Ho hum. Deploying such large forces for a piece which is only twenty minutes has led to the tradition of always performing it twice in concerts, at the beginning and end.

All of these pieces benefit hugely from being heard live where you can see the effort it takes to create and co ordinate the music and where you get the full aural impact.

You can listen to almost all the sessions I list here as South Bank podcasts and make your own mind up.

Karlheinz Stockhausen en surimpression de la partition d'une de ses composition, Strasbourg, 1980 (Wikimedia Commons)

Karlheinz Stockhausen en surimpression de la partition d’une de ses composition, Strasbourg, 1980 (Wikimedia Commons)

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

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