An avant-garde reputation

Ensemble Modern | Edinburgh Playhouse
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The Independent Culture

The large audience that crowded into Edinburgh's Playhouse on Friday to hear the music of Steve Reich was unmistakably different from other Festival audiences - specially for new music - younger, scruffier and distinctly more hip. Something about Reich's music attracts the people who don't want to hear Boulez conducting Eötvös or Ligeti, and for the most part are unaware of the reputation of the Ensemble Modern in "avant-garde" circles.

The large audience that crowded into Edinburgh's Playhouse on Friday to hear the music of Steve Reich was unmistakably different from other Festival audiences - specially for new music - younger, scruffier and distinctly more hip. Something about Reich's music attracts the people who don't want to hear Boulez conducting Eötvös or Ligeti, and for the most part are unaware of the reputation of the Ensemble Modern in "avant-garde" circles.

A theatrical note was struck immediately by the beautifully symmetrical arrangement of instruments on the vast Playhouse stage, including four massive lidless grand pianos, and an air almost of religious ritual prevailed as the players filed on for Drumming Part 1. Hearing this music on record can never be quite the same as hearing it live - even though, ironically, it could be played more accurately nowadays by a computer (not available in the Seventies when Reich was blazing his pioneering trail). It's partly the slight tension of knowing that one beat wrong in this almost robotic sequence could spell disaster that makes it all so exciting. The Ensemble Modern performed with impressive concentration while maintaining an outward cool, and once again one could only marvel at the amount of variety that can be extracted from eight tuned bongos.

The religious atmosphere continued with a remarkable hush before the performers returned to play Music for 18 Musicians. Written a few years after Drumming, in 1976, here Reich was expanding his language considerably, with not only melodic and harmonic instruments (and voices) added to the percussion, but also using much faster processes of change and development at times. The result is a shifting, kaleidoscopic music that seems to hang in space, with mesmeric effect. Bright, clear sonorities change and change about at the signal of the vibraphone presiding at the centre of things, and time almost seems to stand still.

There was just the slightest hint of faltering in the seamless texture once or twice, but on the whole, the EM players demonstrated that they can cope with the demands of "systems" music as well as the more superficially complicated, but in some ways less difficult, extravagances of the modernist establishment.

The stoicism and discipline of pianists and marimba-players playing the same chord 99 times in succession was remarkable to behold. After about 50 minutes, the music came to its abrupt end, and received an enthusiastic reception, but while it lasted it reminded us that there is a kind of contemporary art music that is free of the burdens of the European "great" tradition - bright, cool, joyous and innocent. And it makes a nice change.

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