Steve Reich

Live | Colin Currie Group plays Steve Reich

May 1st, St David’s Hall, Cardiff

As Adrian Hull pointed out at the start of his pre-performance talk, the origins of Steve Reich’s music, the rolling rhythms of his loops, stretch back to his childhood when his parents divorced and, sharing custody of young Steve, moved to opposite corners of the United States. Hull argues that it was on the long lonely train journeys between New York and Los Angeles that the composer Reich was made – or rather the mix was put in the bowl. Anybody familiar – not even devoted to – Reich’s music will find this an utterly convincing and fascinating idea; that Reich’s rhythms were pushed into him in the recesses of his toddlerdom, weaving its way into the fabric of his solitary, contemplative journeys; journeys that could be effectively used as metaphors for Reich’s life.

That lonely child, crisscrossing the American continent, became one of the towering musical figures of the second half of the twentieth century (he’s still going strong, of course). I could lazily fill this article with the names of those he has influenced and who frequently name-check him, but I’ll spend my space with his music as we all should.

There is another interesting point lying inside Hall’s initial idea, though; Reich is one of those ‘children of New York’, an artist of real genius who is held closely to the bosom of the world’s most egomaniacal city. But Reich’s work is timeless and placless, always moving, always shifting. It is not just the rhythms that shift, but the ideas, the contexts. Quite often, when you think you have the road mapped out you will find you were misled; Reich’s work is an infinite rail road of myriad unsuspected bends and angles.

In 2006, to mark the composer’s 70th birthday, the BBC Proms approached Colin Currie to assemble a percussion ‘super group’ to pay homage to the great man. Currie, one of the world’s most revered percussionists, has since become the authority on the live Reich experience, with the Colin Currie Group becoming nothing less than global ambassadors for Reich’s shattering 70-minute masterpiece Drumming (1971). That Currie is in Cardiff, performing Reich, in a hall as proud and sympathetic as that of St David’s, is nothing less than a world-class event. On the stage at least, in the performances of the group, it is most certainly no less than that (although the atmosphere all around St David’s is considerably more lacklustre than the prestige of the event it is hosting).

Reich has endorsed the Colin Currie Group personally, honouring their leader as the man to take his music to the next generations. Currie is perfectly in tune with the simple complexities of Reich’s ideas – he is, in fact, as in step with Reich as he is with his accompanists. Throughout the 90 minute performance Reich is not just the source of the music; he is the seventh band member, as good as there, inflecting each perfect stroke with his affable influence.

And for all of the intensity of the performances – and Reich live, at its best, is a tense experience – there is an incongruous fluidity specking the stage throughout. Clapping Music, Reich’s 1972 party piece is famously difficult to perform, although any two people with four hands can give it a go. The concentration levels needed to take off, lap through the labyrinth of rhythms, and end up back together are the stuff of legend, and there is a palpable sense of joyful achievement not only throughout the audience but on the stage as the two musicians’ claps unify in the final bars. A common and popular opener to Reich concerts since the mid-seventies it works here too, and begins a bold toe-dip chronological programme.

The centrepiece, and perhaps Reich’s most widely revered composition, Sextet (1985) is delivered with a shoulder-knotting level of intensity. The 30 minute piece is a bright journey through Reich’s mountainous influences – from African beats to American minimalism to the backcloths and cavernous echoes of Hebrew music. Currie and his men move around the stage between instruments like cogs and pistons, the musical whole one perfect machine – the train unstoppable on its track. And this is the centre of what came out of Reich’s early experimentalism, when he was swinging microphones at amps in the 60’s and looping tapes: there is humanity to his work. It can be argued that what Reich did for music was help create a language for the adoration of industrial development (rather than the suspicion of it the modernists had) – something that more mainstream artists like Kraftwerk and Bowie and even Radiohead were able to able to absorb and turn into pop. It wouldn’t have worked without the humanity. The music is the machine, and in the Colin Currie Group you can see the engine drivers go about their business.

After the interval the Group is trimmed for two more stunningly precise but soulful performances: Mallet Quartet (2009) and Quartet (2013). The Mallet Quartet for two vibraphones and two marimbas is perhaps the exemplar of Reich’s music in the last twenty years; 15 minutes of searching-but-tightly-controlled virtuosity, full of the thematic ideas you might expect. It is with Quartet that some of the surprises come, and it is an invigorating end to the concert. Here Reich, who in his career has touched, it seems, every inch of God’s green Earth with his philosophical questions, appears to return with both feet in America. There are moments when it is full-heartedly the America of John Ford and Elmer Bernstein. Currie guides the dusty boots through the cleanliness and sharpness of the Reichian sound – he can never fully escape Stravinsky.

Reich wrote Quartet especially for Currie in 2013, and it is a piece filled with unsuspected humour and warmth as well as the unmistakeable jolts as Reich forces the piano into a drum. But, Reich here is now using pedals for perhaps the first time, allowing the piano to ring, allowing it to breathe.

And breath for the onlooker, whilst experiencing Reich live, and in the hands of masters utterly in step with Reich’s vision, is something that will be on hold.

photo credit: Chris Dawes