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Seen and Heard Concert Review




Bartók, Reich and Eno: BBC Symphony Orchestra, Synergy Vocals, Alexander Rumpf (conductor - Bartók), Stefan Asbury (conductor – Reich) Bang on a Can All Stars, Barbican Centre, London, 07.10.2006 (AO)




As the notes to the programme, written by Reich specialist Paul Griffiths, put it, Bartók’s Music for strings, percussion and celeste, written in the year Steve Reich was born, “could have been the (infant) composer’s horoscope”, because it foretells Reich’s characteristic style, with “musical processes and percussion made central”. Obviously, it wasn’t just Reich who absorbed these ideas, (think Carter and Boulez, for example), but point taken. This wasn’t the most acute reading, but rather one where mystery predominated.  It was a good a warm up to the Reich most people had come to hear


Just as in the Bartók piece, spatial considerations influenced the form of Reich’s 2004 work You are (Variations). Bartók uses mirror image orchestras, balanced by percussion in the middle. Reich uses four marimbas on each side of the orchestra, with four pianos in the centre.  Significantly, the six singers stand at the back, not forwards of the orchestra. Fortunately, Barbican acoustics keep the voices relatively uncovered but still, this isn’t writing for voice “as” voice.  Much may be made of the texts, taken from the Talmud, psalms and Wittgenstein, but if the voices are just another sound component they might as well be singing scat.  It’s not the only music where the music goes an entirely different direction to the text, but why not use abstract sounds instead if that’s the case? Synergy Vocals are very good indeed, but not used to best effect here.  This is fairly straightforward Reich, no light installations, no pre- recorded tapes, so it’s fairly easy access, and was lively enough. But the effect of relentless repetitions, felt like the hum of a highway where vehicles speed along in formation with occasional flurries of sounding shooting off in other directions.   You don’t want human contact on a highway.  Hence the smooth, impersonal dominant chord.  The endless activity can be bent, shaped and remixed, ideal music for urban and technology-based genres. 


It’s a lineal descendant of the famous Tehillim from 1981.  In the brief interval, David Lang spoke about how revolutionary the piece sounded when he discovered it 25 years ago.   It was, he said, proof that you could apply microscopic variations to longer melodic lines.  It was a breakthrough of a kind, because world music in those days was very avant garde.  It was exciting that people from outside the mainstream could produce “minimalist” music from simple things like chant, ululation, home made instruments and so on.   Reich cites two sources of inspiration : Yemeni Jewish communities who still sang Psalms in an ancient form, and African communities, where panoplies of sound are built on simple rhythmic elements.  Thus the music starts with a very simple chant, accompanied at first by one person clapping, then builds up to a crescendo of sorts with several voices, several claps and a rattle like instrument, so basic it makes maracas sound sophisticated.  The base line is a sort of drone, not in a negative sense, but as a kind of steady pulse that keeps the music afloat.  It’s a bit like long distance running. If you break the stroke, you upset the natural progression.  In traditional music, this is a feature of communal performance, so it applies integrally, too, to Tehillim.  It was interesting to watch the musicians’ hands, their fingers moving over and over in more or less the same way.  At one stage the clarinettist started to sway to the hypnotic beat.  I loved this, because he was really entering into its spirit.  No traditional musician would remain immobile – whatever their culture, it would probably be deemed unnatural.  In the third section, a more “European” feel enters, with echoes of western rites and choruses. The repeating variations in voice opened out more warmly, and the strings started to sound more like strings.   The piece ended as it began, with the rattle and plaintive voice.  After 25 years it’s not quite as exciting as it was, and I felt quite down, thinking about how much the world had changed from those innocent days.  Also, I felt sad about having to miss Gavin Bryars tribute to Reich the next day, and the premičre of Reich’s very important Daniel Variations (2006).


Luckily, up in the lobby The Bang on a Can All Stars performing a live version of Brian Eno’s Music for Airports (1978), arranged for guitar, cello, bass, keyboards and other instruments by David Lang.  When that first appeared it truly was revolutionary.  I was lucky to have several friends who recognised its significance better than I could possibly have done so.  One of them said that ambient music was the “essence” of music because it freed the listener from the surrounding hubbub of meaningless noise.  Its very voids and resonances can help a listener focus inwardly.  Its spaces are there for you to fill with your mind.    It was, my friend said, “the opposite of mental gum chewing”. 


In live performance, it’s even more involving and personal.  I had a look, too, at Eno’s installation 77 Million Paintings which is supposed to run for 9000 years without repeating itself, not that I’ll count. Science Fiction ?  That’s what I thought about Music for Airports a lifetime ago, not realising how much it would subliminally influence me.  




Anne Ozorio






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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)