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MUSIC / Many hands make light work: Piano Circus had a problem: six keyboards but only one piece to play. What could they do without Steve Reich?

Guess it must have seemed like a great idea at the time - writing a piece for all the pianos in a New York music store. We're talking the early Seventies, after all - the era of great ideas, grandiose installations, multi-media happenings, musical scores composed for entire cities. But then practicalities intervened and the piece got scaled down to one involving just six instruments. The same practicalities pretty well ensured that Six Pianos - as Steve Reich, the American minimalist composer, minimally named his new piece - would remain a one-off. Who else, after all, was going to write another work you could only ever perform in a piano store?

So it wasn't really with any intention of generating a new musical genre, or even of establishing a permanent ensemble, that six young piano students from Edinburgh University clubbed together in the summer of 1989, borrowed a half-dozen heavy but just about portable Clavinova electronic keyboards from Roland, dubbed themselves Piano Circus and sat down in an Edinburgh art gallery to play Reich's phase-shifting sextet as part of that year's Festival Fringe. It was, explains founder Piano Circus performer Max Richter, just for fun.

'It's a great piece, great fun to play, and really great for friends to play.' The thing is, it was also a great success, and not just with the denizens of the Fringe. The television cameras came and so, too, did the offer of a recording contract from Decca. The company had just launched its new Argo label and clearly felt that the Piano Circus profile, though still almost invisibly low, fitted in with its declared aim to 'explore the musical cultures of Britain and America' and matched the minimalist / American aesthetic it had established with its early releases of music by the two Michaels, Nyman and Torke.

Piano Circus themselves were keen to keep going. 'It was just such fun,' recalls Richter, 'and, logistics aside, the idea of a piano sextet seemed to be workable - I mean, musically, it was sustainable.' There was just one problem: there wasn't any music for them to play. Or at least there was one piece, Simon Rackham's Which ever way your nose bends, which the group had commissioned as a companion-piece for the Reich in those first Edinburgh Fringe recitals. But, while it was perfect for the original gallery context, with audiences free to come and go as they chose, even Richter admits it's not the perfect concert work. 'It's sort of mesmeric if you wander round and listen to just 20 minutes of it. But, sitting in a concert hall, it's possibly pushing it a bit. I know people who've gone through all sorts of hell listening to it because they couldn't leave.' It's also very demanding. 'It's so long, over 30 minutes, and you're just counting the whole time. Every bar is repeated a different number of times.'

It's still in their rep, but they obviously needed to start commissioning some new pieces fast. And, with Decca's help, they've been doing just that. Some of the results can be heard on their latest CD, out this month, and live at the South Bank Centre in London tomorrow.

In the meantime, they were forced to fall back on a few pieces of indeterminate instrumentation, such as Terry Riley's minimalist trend-setter, In C, in which virtually all the parameters of performance - instrumentation, tempo, dynamics, duration - are left to the players' discretion, apart from a handful of melodic patterns centred around a repeated octave C.

It was this piece with which they chose to fill up their debut recording of the Reich, almost risking a charge of misleading advertising in the process. For the disc demonstrates one of the group's key strengths - namely that, just because they play six keyboards, it doesn't mean they have to end up sounding like six pianos. Thanks to the technological wizardry of sampling boxes and Midi keyboards, In C came out sounding as if it was being played by an ensemble comprising one concert grand, one upright, a Rhodes piano, two harpsichords and a vibraphone. In the right hands, and wired up to the right machines, Piano Circus's 60 fingers are capable of conjuring almost any sound from the 528-odd keys at their disposal.

Their new disc is split evenly between electronic and acoustic keyboards. Robert Moran, the American composer and sometime collaborator of Philip Glass, is one man who, back in the Sixties and Seventies, really was writing for whole cities - as in his Thirty-nine Minutes for 39 Autos, actually for 100,000 performers and the whole of downtown San Francisco. For the recording of his Three Dances, he virtually scored the work during the sessions, taking full advantage of the available technology and picking colour options as Piano Circus played. 'It was like playtime in the studio for him,' Richter recalls. 'We used more channels on the sound desk than anyone's ever used at the Hit Factory before, and that's saying something.'

If Moran's music provides a showcase for the latest in hi-tech sampling, the challenge of recording Steve Reich's one-chord classic, Four Organs, was to recreate the unrecapturable lo-tech 'cheapness' of the now obsolete Farfisa organs of the early 1970s. Luckily, Richter found a sound box with exactly the right sample in it.

But, whatever the enhanced palette afforded by electronic keyboards, there remains something uniquely impressive about the sound of six concert grands heard hammering away together in full flight. Of all four works on the new disc David Lang's Dufay variation, Face So Pale, is the one that most needs to be heard live, so dependent is it on the acoustic properties of the instruments themselves.

For, in true minimalist manner, Lang's music emerges almost as a by-product of the playing process, using incessantly repeated single-note tremolos within a very limited range - as Richter notes, they only had to tune the middle 10th of the keyboards - to throw up a halo of harmonic overtones above the heads of the players. 'Lang calls it 'taking your cathedral with you',' says Richter.

Given the practical problems of getting six grand pianos together for a live recital, Piano Circus might just as well try building the cathedral themselves. For tomorrow night's Queen Elizabeth Hall concert, their first in three years, Steinway has supplied the six Model D concert grands, weighing half a ton a piece and needing three men to move each one, as well as the army of tuners required to keep them all in exact unison.

Getting to grips with the real thing outside of the recording studio can also come as something of a shock to the players themselves, given that they're now more used to playing in public on compact keyboards. Once behind their concert grands, they're suddenly 25 feet from their nearest neighbour, cut off from all the usual visual cues that keep them in touch in music that demands absolute precision.

Sitting in their standard hexagonal pattern, they used to worry about shutting the audience out by turning their backs on them. 'But then we realised that people rather like the kind of voyeuristic aspect of it. They feel like they're eavesdropping on us. So it's actually rather interesting for them. It has a sort of Rear Window quality to it.'

QEH, South Bank, London SE1, tomorrow 7.45pm (071-928 8800)

(Photograph omitted)