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Steve REICH (b. 1936)
Drumming (1971)
Colin Currie Group, Synergy Vocals
rec. 2017, The Warehouse, London

There are two equal components to this disc, and you’ll have to be sold on them both to enjoy it.

The first is the less controversial, and that’s the stunning musicianship of the Colin Currie Group. Currie himself is probably the most famous percussionist working in Britain today. He was the first percussionist to reach the finals of the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition in 1994, and he has gone from strength to strength since then. He’s a force of nature to watch – living in his native Scotland, I get to see him relatively regularly – coupling musical sensitivity with charismatic dynamism, and he’s always worth seeing as well as hearing. He founded the Colin Currie group back in 2006 as an ensemble with which to perform, specialising in the music of Steve Reich, and this is the first release on Currie’s own record label, something you could deduce from its record number, above.

He and his team (ten instrumentalists plus three from Synergy Vocals) work marvels in this performance. Playing music like Drumming must require a particular sort of focus to keep the patterns going while also tweaking them ever so slightly to produce new waves, and I was left perpetually amazed by what they were able to do. They say that giving yourself to minimalist music plays tricks with time, and this disc is a good example of that. I can’t imagine it played better or with tighter dedication than here, as it moves through wave upon wave of musical colour and energy.

The second, more controversial component is the work itself. Minimalism is a controversial genre for many, and Steve Reich’s Drumming kind of exemplifies it in lots of ways. It’s a totemic work in this composer’s output, relying on repeated patterns which are gradually altered to create new patterns; “phasing” as it came to be called. That gives the music a structure and feel which for some is hypnotically attractive, while for others it’s maddeningly repetitious. You need to make your decision and pitch your tent on that issue if you’re going to approach this disc, though if you’re already in the latter camp then I doubt this performance will change your mind.

I have to confess that there are times when my mood swung violently for and against it. Part One, for four pairs of tuned drums only, was the most tricky for me. At times it worked pretty powerfully, bending time around my ears as each rhythm took hold, and there were times when the sense of the music morphing was so powerful as to be almost physical. At other points, though, it felt pretty chaotic and I struggled to sense the guiding principle.

Things picked up significantly with Part Two, though, for three marimbas and vocals. The extra colour and the clever way it’s deployed really swept me up and left me hungry to find out what the next innovation would be. There’s a definite element of magic from that point onwards, particularly when the glockenspiels enter for Part Three, and the building wave of notes in Part Four becomes pretty overwhelming.

So altogether I found this a valuable, interesting and often very exciting release. I only wish I’d been able to see it as well. Let’s see what Currie and his group do next.

Simon Thompson

Previous review: Philip Borg-Wheeler

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