Wednesday 6 March 2013

Steve Reich's Radio Rewrite

Steve Reich
Few contemporary composers draw the kind of crowds that Steve Reich does, and his appearance with the London Sinfonietta yesterday at London’s Royal Festival Hall had been sold-out months ago. Tickets were so scarce that press comps couldn’t eventually be offered to those towards the bottom of the food chain (i.e. me), but the disappointment was quelled by Radio 3’s live broadcast, fronted by a clearly-excited Andrew MacGregor.

It began (as Reich concerts often do) with the composer’s 1972 piece Clapping Music, intended as a demonstration of music without conventional instruments. Reich took one of the two parts for last night’s performance of this early example of his ‘phase’ pieces. Another classic followed, with Mats Bergström dusting off Reich 1987 work Electric Counterpoint, originally written for jazz guitarist Pat Metheny and consisting of overlaid tracks and a final part played live. In performance, I’ve found it an odd spectacle – one live musician playing one of twelve parts, seeming a little karaoke – but it works well on the radio, where the whole blends seamlessly with no visual distractions. It remains one of Reich’s loveliest creations.

A clutch of more recent pieces formed the bulk of the programme. 2x5 (2008) makes use of instruments more often associated with rock music – electric guitars, basses, drum kit – and marks a departure from Reich’s more conventional instrumental palette. It chugs along in typically Reichian fashion, but the twang of the guitars lends an unexpectedly homemade feel that becomes quite endearing. The headline work of the night was the premiere performance of Radio Rewrite, based in part of two songs by Radiohead (“Jigsaw Falling into Place” and “Everything in its Right Place”). The songs are barely recognisable, having been subsumed into Reich’s familiar language, but something of Radiohead’s distinctive harmony has clearly rubbed off, particularly in the slower sections. Finally, his Pulitzer Prize-winning Double Sextet (2007) demonstrated his work for an unusually large combination of instruments, but couldn’t quell the feeling that too much of Reich’s music is cut from the same cloth.

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