Steve Reich at the Barbican

Steve Reich in conversation at the Barbican/ Drumming (Part 1) and Walking on the Wall
(Barbican Centre, 5th May 2011. Review and drawing* by Geoff Winston)

Serendipity. My visit to the New York exhibition at the Barbican Art Gallery happened to coincide with the evening when Steve Reich launched the ‘Reverberations’ weekend.

Reich was in conversation with Bang On a Can co-founder, Julie Wolfe. He monitored the opening performance of Drumming (Part 1) by So Percussion, chatting with the four musicians in the Barbican Gallery beforehand, and – with typical generosity – said that many of the top younger musicians are now able to perform his compositions better than his own ensemble.

Before the conversation there was a performance of Walking on the Wall (above), an astonishing choregraphed piece by Trisha Brown in which the black-clad dancers are suspended by pulleys and walk, run, jump, bunch up, move as tight clinched combinations, all at 90 degrees to the Gallery wall – no soundtrack – it has to be seen to be believed!

Reich was urbane, articulate, and happy to let the discussion range from his formative studies (“bad imitations of Bartok”) to the detail of planned compositions. He described virtuosity as the ability to play with other people, essential to realise and maintain the incremental shifts of beats and rests in his works. The jazz connections were there – Hall Overton, with whom he studied composition in New York, was a friend of and arranger for Monk. Asked if he has an ‘American voice’ he noted that “every composer and human being … comes out of a time and a place” – Bach and Leipzig, for example.

He touched on the strictures of the new music establishment of the 50s and 60s, who considered his approach to be “absurd”, and his love of Bach, Stravinsky, Be Bop – which was “not on the menu” – and Coltrane whom he saw play live on several occasions, who was “playing alot of notes and very few harmonies”. Diverse influences included Ravi Shankar, seen on tour, the Medieval composer Pérotin, and Motown, especially Junior Walker. The bass line of Shotgun created “tension because it didn’t change”, and Reich sang it out, going on to state that “harmonic stasis was in the air in America”. This was a significant assertion, articulating an overt resonance between the currents of US popular culture and esoteric compositional practice.

Reich then pointed out how important the formation of his own ensemble was to the way his music developed, but how difficult it was to actually find performing opportunities. The art world came to his rescue with the 1971 premiere of Drumming at MOMA’s small stage, and then concerts at the Guggenheim, the Whitney, Kunsthalle (Hamburg), and the Hayward in 1972 (during the Rothko exhibition). His artist friends – Richard Serra, Bruce Nauman, Sol Le Witt – lobbied for concerts to accompany their exhibitions. He said that “it was easier to program concerts in Cologne than California …” Why? “Because of PUBLIC FUNDING.”

Reich described his forthcoming suite for 24 musicians – combining rock, percussion, string and woodwind ensembles – which will be premiered in London in 2013, and the relationship between pre-recorded and performed elements in his music, making a case for the artist-composed self accompaniments for his Counterpoint pieces, while at the same time making the case for the primacy of the live performance. Absolutely fascinating.

The evening was MC’d by Barbican Head of Music, Robert van Leer who exudes an infectious enthusiasm for the music. Good to see other musicians there, such as Christian Marclay, an artist who, in unpredictable ways, links the worlds of fine art and of music.

(*)Drawing copyright Geoff Winston 2011. All rights reserved.

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2 replies »

  1. I noted one further jazz-relevance in the discussion- Steve Reich mentioned that while studying Wittgenstein (his BA thesis subject at Cornell) he played jazz drums at weekends. I've just read that he took drum lessons from Roland Kohloff, who was to be principal timpanist for the New York Phil for over 50 years, to equip him for this part-time occupation!


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