Reich/Richter and Moor Mother’s The Great Bailout
(Barbican complex, 23 October 2019. Review and drawings by Geoff Winston)
This was a very busy evening at the Barbican with two must-see concerts of adventurous, one-off collaborations – Moor Mother’s The Great Bailout with the London Contemporary Orchestra at Milton Court and Steve Reich’s Reich/Richter with artist Gerhardt Richter and the Britten Sinfonia in the main concert hall, preceded the day before by a Steve Reich in-conversation at LSO St Luke’s. Unfortunately the timings of the two concerts overlapped and I was only able to attend the second part of the Reich piece, so compelling was the Moor Mother x LCO performance which had an earlier start time.
The Great Bailout is a major work by one of today’s most significant artists, Moor Mother (aka Camae Ayewa). Based in Philadelphia, an Afrofuturist and key proponent of Black Quantum Futurism, she works in a wide range of media – poetry, music performance, sound collage and art installations – to richly articulate her insights, experience and perceptions with visceral and moving immediacy.
The project with the LCO came about following a tweet where she said she wanted to work with an orchestra. The LCO responded without hesitation and the project developed as Moor Mother researched the disturbing history of the slave trade to build a complex and telling narrative bristling with uncomfortable truths, a modus operandi she has developed in her poetry collection, Fetish Bones, and in live performance, in her own name and with others, including the left-field, jazz-based combo, Irreversible Entanglements.
The Barbican concert was the second outing in a short European tour of The Great Bailout, which premiered at the Tusk festival in Gateshead. The stage presentation was brilliantly conceived. Working with a brightly resourceful quartet from the LCO, Moor Mother was centrally positioned at a work desk with violas to the right and percussion and piano to the left (as viewed from the audience). Behind the performers four closely positioned, parallel horizontal beams of light, no more than the height of a standing person in total, added to the drama as red, white and blue shafts of light were shot across the stage in changing combinations, with drifts of stage smoke evoking a sense of desperate places, occasionally sinking away for floods of colour to engulf the stage.
The musicians gelled around Moor Mother’s script with acute precision and imagination to create an intense, abstract milieu in which the histories of incrimination and discrimination co-existed in Moor Mother’s maelstrom of poetic reflections. The sound was crisp, spot-on, nothing was lost, whether the agonising wailing of the strings, the scraping of a bow on metal percussion, deep rumblings from the grand piano or the hollow tinkling of constrained piano wires, all melding with the coruscating critique that took in an improvisation on God Save the Queen (Victoria), sampled work chants and echoes of folk melody.
“Europe is God, everything else is the devil… death ships in London… losing all humanity… 46,000 owners compensated… total annihilation… unpaid labour without citizenship”… and questions: “Where did the money come from?” (to fund national institutions). “Who’s going to rid us of the stench of anti-blackness?” No holds barred.
This was a tour de force, utterly compelling and superbly executed.
Always engaging when discussing his career and practice, Steve Reich covered a broad range of subjects in conversation with broadcaster Elizabeth Alker, covering his own preoccupations, including African drumming and Balinese gamelan, and his first friendships on arriving in New York with artists, Serra, Le Witt and Nauman, which led to performances of early works in art museums in the ’70s. He noted that the barriers built up between popular and classical music in the ’50s were questioned by his generation of composers, while Stravinsky, Ives and Bartok had happily adopted folk and drinking songs in their output, maintaining relationships between the two genres that had existed for centuries.
Reich discussed how Richter had approached him ten years ago with a view to working together and that this venture was mooted in 2016, a musical accompaniment to a film made by Corinna Belz based on Richter’s Patterns book. He discussed the mathematical basis of the Patterns film and explained how the music he composed for it was, up to a point, correlated with the maths – fractions of notes relating to fractional divisions on-screen, taking account of mirrorings and divisions, but stated that “Richter is not at all systematic”! Yet he was quite clear that he does not write for film, that this excursion was the exception – and flagged up that those who knew his his earlier music would hear something different in this piece!
In the closing Q&A he went on to discuss young composers whom he held in high regard and gave heartfelt, practical advice to a 20-year-old student on how to develop his composing skills.
To cut to the chase – especially after the absorbing, tactile immediacy of Moor Mother’s concert, what I saw of Richter’s film came across, disappointingly, as somewhat slight, akin to a computerised realisation of a rectangular, multi-faceted kaleidoscope, evocative fleetingly, of aspects of eastern religious iconography, creating an ambient visual wash which barely engaged in a visually stimulating way. The morphing, whilst utilising technology and a significant resource, seemed to amount to very little, which was a shame, given Richter’s track record and status as an artist, as underlined in Tate Modern’s 2015 solo exhibition.
Whilst Reich’s rigorously constructed orchestral composition was expertly executed by the 14-piece Britten Sinfonia conducted by percussionist Colin Currie, the impression was anodyne, verging on ‘easy listening’, when mindful of the tensions and magnetism in his earlier works, whether Music for 18 Musicians, Desert Music or the pieces for individuals or small groups – Electric Counterpoint or Clapping, for example, which had both featured the previous night at St Luke’s.
This seemed to be a case of two major figures, Richter and Reich, resting on their laurels, deciding not to challenge the contemporary status quo which they, in part, had set in place, while the young, independent voice of Moor Mother, in an entirely new setting for her talents, came out with an unforgivingly challenging and invigorating musical statement.
The Great Bailout
Moor Mother: electronics, vocals
Galya Bisengalieva: viola
Alison D’Souza: viola
Katherine Tinker: piano
Ric Elsworth: percussion
Conductor: Colin Currie
Film: Corinna Belz with Gerhardt Richter
Composer: Steve Reich
Categories: Live review