"Listening to umm-pah-pah, umm-pah-pah over and over again is intolerable and, indeed, a mistake," said Steve Reich in the context of an interview relating to The Desert Music. And yet Friday's performance by the BBC Singers and Matrix under Robert Ziegler realised little of the "lightness and constant ambiguity" that characterizes Reich's work. Granted that the ambient acoustic didn't exactly help: voices projected loud and clear, rhythms were prominent but the interweaving instrumental pulses blurred around the edges. Another problem was the manner of playing, especially among the violins, which employed an emphatic style that's more appropriate to Stravinsky than to Reich's loose-limbed counterpoint. The work dates from 1982 /1983 and marked a stylistic step forward from the purely minimalist pieces that had ghettoised young Reich in the eyes of a hardline avant-garde. It opens to a powerful rhythmic pulse that instigates a five-movement "arch", a musical palindrome with a sullen core and livelier outer sections. Reich's title is taken from a collection of poems by William Carlos Williams that concern the listening mind. However, Reich's way of dealing with the coexistent "sound" and "meaning" of words lacks focus: mobile, well-structured and texturally intricate though The Desert Music is, there's little suggestion of the colour and vitality that he re-claimed for Different Trains.
Reich's best vocal work uses pre-recorded speech fragments alongside related musical patterns, whereas Aaron Copland's a cappella masterpiece In the Beginning - which began the programme - presented the most vivid manner of word-painting imaginable, with each verse of Biblical text witnessing a wealth of harmonic, rhythmic and dynamic incident. Copland's intention was that the singers should perform "as if reading a familiar, oft-told story", an idea that mezzo-soprano Judith Harris, Robert Ziegler and the BBC Singers obviously took on board.
Between Copland and Reich came Feldman and Cage. Morton Feldman's Christian Wolff in Cambridge vividly illustrated the idea of time and pulse being "frozen" (Ziegler himself determined the precise length of individual lines). A short piece, it greeted the air gently and provided a well- judged bridge to John Cage's Amores for three percussion and "prepared" piano.The gamelan-like sounds were palatable enough, but the best of Cage's successors did the musics of Bali and Java greater justice - Steve Reich, especially.