Music to our minds: Mark Pappenheim examines The Cave - the first stage piece of the experimental composer Steve Reich

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The Independent Culture
'WINDOWS on to the human soul' Janacek called them - those chance melodic lines thrown up by the natural rise and fall of human speech. A compulsive annotator of ambient sounds, he would note down everything, from the creak of a door to the casual greeting of a passer-by or his own daughter's dying breath, and use the resulting 'speech melodies' to lend the ring of truth to his dramatic works.

Nothing could be further from the human passions of Janacek's operas than the abstract pattern-play of Steve Reich's early works. Yet both grew from a common impulse - to capture the naked expressivity of real-life speech and make music of it. Where Janacek used a manuscript pad, Reich used a tape recorder.

That was in the early Sixties, during the great debate between electronic music and musique concrete. Reich had plumped for the latter - with reservations. 'What was wrong to me about the musique concrete people,' he laughs, 'was that they seemed ashamed of their concreteness.' Reich felt the challenge was to keep the emotional impact of the raw actuality and develop it through composition, not technology.

Thus it was, while playing around with a wonky tape machine, that Reich accidentally discovered 'phase shifting'. This was to be the first in a whole series of 'sounding processes' that he devised to power his 'minimalist' musical aesthetic through the next decade.

Yet, frustrated by the limitations of tape in a pre-digital world, he soon transferred his attentions from machines to living performers, and thereafter, amplification aside, abandoned technology altogether - until the advent of the digital sampler. 'It just immediately struck me as something that had been made, you know, for my express personal use, thank you very much, because it offered the possibility not only of reintegrating whatever you like in a documentary way, but of bringing it in on the 'and three' of the 13th measure as you are playing it.' And so he rediscovered his early interest in actuality as a ready-made source of musical material.

The first result was Different Trains, the award- winning 1988 concert piece (premiered by the Kronos on the South Bank), in which the sampled voices of Holocaust survivors were used to generate the basic musical motifs for a live string quartet playing in canon with its own multiple mirror-image on prerecorded tape. An essentially autobiographical work, Different Trains comes across as a powerfully emotive piece of documentary theatre-of-the-mind, a kind of soundtrack in search of a film.

Now Reich himself has taken the logical next step by collaborating with his wife, the video artist Beryl Korot, in the creation of a new type of 'documentary music video theater'. Four years in the making and three hours in the running, scored for 13 players and four singers, and set on a three-tiered architectural set incorporating five giant video screens, The Cave is Reich's first stage piece but not, he insists, an opera.

He calls it a 'story told three times by three different cultures' but, typically, this is no simple narrative. There is a story, though, that of Abraham, the founder of monotheism and, through his two sons - Isaac, child of Sarah, and Ishmael, child of Hagar - ancestor to both Jews and Muslims. The cave is the Cave of the Patriarchs, reputed burial place of Abraham and Isaac, but also of Adam and Eve. Now buried beneath later structures, the cave, on the Israeli West Bank, remains the one site in the world where Jews and Muslims worship together.

There is, however, no conventional libretto, nor do the singers represent individual characters from the Bible; instead Reich's text, and the source of his musical score, is a patchwork of soundbites taken from a series of videotaped interviews in which three different groups of people - Israeli Jews, Palestinian Arabs and Americans / Christians - were asked the same five questions: 'Who for you is Abraham?' 'Who for you is Sarah?' 'Who for you is Hagar?' 'Who for you is Ishmael?' 'Who for you is Isaac?'

In tune with Reich's lifetime axiom of making the compositional process and the sounding music one and the same, in The Cave what you hear is what you see: the talking heads provide the raw material not only for the instrumental and vocal score but also for the 'computer grabs' from which Korot stocks her video palette. 'And again,' says Reich, 'the rule is, you've got to stick with the documentary material.'

As one might expect, the five questions elicited a variety of answers. An Israeli settler, answering the question about Ishmael, says, 'You can see him in the street.' A Palestinian woman says of Hagar, 'She was a refugee, I think.' For an elderly black woman filmed in a Brooklyn church, Hagar is 'The servant - and, of course, a servant takes orders. Whatever you tell them to do, they do it.' And at that point, adds Reich, 'her eyes drop - just for a second - and you can feel it right there,' he says, striking his chest, 'because you know that 20 years ago, if not more recently, she was on her knees scrubbing some white person's bathroom.'

The American interviewees proved largely less familiar with the story than their Middle Eastern counterparts. The sculptor Richard Serra, asked about Ishmael, said, 'Call me Ishmael - Moby Dick.' A theatre director, asked about Abraham, replied, 'Abraham Lincoln.'

The Cave is full of questions. Yet, when it comes to the problems of the Middle East, Reich can't pretend he has any of the answers - 'although I don't think you can ever understand the situation there if you don't go back to the Biblical and Koranic roots.'

But in the end, he suggests, the piece is more about Western attitudes anyway, especially our ability to turn a blind eye to such situations, whether in the East or closer to home. The Cave can't promise a way back to the Garden of Eden, but, by opening a few windows on human souls, it can at least cast a little light on our darkness.

'The Cave': 7.30 18-23 Aug, plus 3pm Sun 22 Aug, RFH (071-928 8800) pounds 7.50- pounds 25

Pre-concert talk by Reich and Korot (sponsored by Farringdons Records, see also ticket offer, left): 6pm Thu 19, admission free with a ticket to any perf of 'The Cave' or a copy of that day's 'Independent'

Music to our minds

(Photograph omitted)