Thursday, 7 March 2013

It'll Be All Reich On The Night

Did you see what I did there? Did you?

So anyway, last night saw rocking up at Birmingham's Town Hall (a lovely venue) to see Steve Reich in person performing his early classic Clapping Music, then a series of his work across the decades culminating in Radio Rewrite, his take on two Radiohead songs performed for the first time ever in London the night before. I posted some videos of most of the pieces yesterday, so go there to hear them.

It was every bit as wonderful as I hoped. Reich wandered on stage dressed in his trademark baggy black clothes and scruffy black baseball cap and launched into Clapping Music without fanfare, alongside David Hockings. The performance was spell-binding and as close to perfect as I've ever heard it. After that, it was Electric Counterpoint, the piece for electric guitar and pre-recorded tracks, performed by Mats Bergström. It's a long, intense piece and it was funny watching Bergström almost throw some rock shapes as he was torn between Classical Training and electric guitar's history. As a performance though: faultless. That was followed by 2x5, another piece scored for rock instruments. I have to say that I felt it drifted a little: too much like Reich by numbers. The dread words 'Tubular Bells' floated through my brain. It wasn't the performance: I've never quite warmed to this piece.

After the interval we got Radio Rewrite, very loosely based on these Radiohead songs:

Never having heard them until two minutes ago, I couldn't tell what Reich had taken from Radiohead during last night's performance, but I do think the new piece is a masterpiece on its own message. It's recognizably Reich, with all the musical tics that identify his practice, but it's also lyrical and jagged in ways he doesn't often employ. It felt much more emotional than much of Reich's work. I suppose a cynic might say that a septaguenarian picking up rock bands could be seen as a little desperate, but in this case I disagree: he's seen something intriguing in Radiohead's work and done something special to it without losing his own unique voice. Radiohead fans shouldn't expect to spot too much of their heroes' tracks: this isn't a cover version or even a set of variations.

Here's a live recording made the night before at the London world premiere:

Watch while it's hot: I suspect the lawyers will take it down soon.

and here's Reich talking about the new piece:

The final piece was Reich's Double Sextet, one of my very favourite pieces, and beautifully, passionately performed by the London Sinfonietta: I found myself rocking back and forth to the motorik rhythms more than once. It was a surprise to see a conductor lead them, I'm so used to Reich's work being performed without one. At the end, Reich (who'd been sitting modestly in the audience throughout) was brought out for long, loud, deserved ovations which he very bashfully tried to direct towards the performers, entirely in keeping with his ethic. Reich's programme notes were interesting too: he pointed out that there are 400 Masses which incorporate a single French folk song (L'Homme Armée) and lists all the composers who incorporated contemporary popular music into their work (no mention of Vaughan Williams though) and suggested that the estrangement between classical and pop was a temporary one occasioned by the ultra-elitist serialists, now largely forgotten. I don't know: I like serialism, but I can see his point and it's a good leftwing one too.

As to the audience: very much as expected. Some older classical concert-goers, some proper 70s prog hippies, acres of hipster spectacles and skinny jeans, intrigued Radiohead obsessives and some school trips thanks to the Town Hall/Symphony Hall's week of Reich-related outreach activity. As we left, we could hear several groups of kids trying out Clapping Music for themselves, which was rather lovely.

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