Steve Reich: Drumming, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
Landmark work that's hard to beat
Wednesday 13 April 2011
Of all the musical elements, drumming is that most associated with abandonment. In rock bands, the drummer is usually the lairiest character, both onstage and off, and the ability of rhythm to deliver listeners into frenzied dance or stricken trance – to drive them, literally, out of their minds – implies a negation of the cerebral in favour of the physical.
But while Steve Reich's music can undoubtedly be trance-like, there is an underlying discipline and focus at its core that confounds the notion of abandon. Watching the Colin Currie Group performing Reich's early-Seventies landmark work Drumming, one is struck by the intense levels of concentration required to bring the 70-minute piece successfully through its various stages. In some musics, a slipped beat may be disguised; but here, a mistake of even a nanosecond could throw the entire performance out of kilter. Thankfully, Currie's 12-piece ensemble is exceptionally focused, and the result holds the audience rapt throughout its duration.
Inspired by Reich's interest in African drumming and gamelan orchestras, the piece shifts between skin, wood and metal sounds, exploring deep relationships between the different timbres. It opens with four players facing each other at eight bongos centrestage, using sticks then padded mallets to develop the 12-beat rhythm cycle into a series of complex patterns that ebb and flow in waves, before more players join in on the three marimbas arrayed stage left, the bongos gradually dropping out as the ensemble focuses on the new element.
Eventually, nine players are crowded around the three marimbas, producing mesmeric, intricate sequences of rippling woody notes, to which are added faint, rhythmic vocal murmurs, the two singers moving microphones to and from their mouths to vary the amplitude in complementary waves. The effect is as if they're catching the ends of tonal cycles and continuing them on, like eddying whorls at the tips of wings, and such is the subtlety of shared timbres involved, they seem to resonate long after they're completed, a hovering sensation that increases when the attention shifts to the three glockenspiels at the other side of the stage, whose glistening high tones are further decorated with discreet whistling and piccolo details.
The transitions between sections, perhaps the most problematic element of the performance, are seamlessly effected throughout, with particular attention paid to the bongos, which might easily overpower the more delicate tones. Ultimately, all the different elements are reintroduced in the collective fourth section, where the apparent contradictions between the skin, wood and metal timbres are magically dissolved in a joyous, propulsive finale that suddenly comes to a shockingly abrupt halt in perfect unison. Leaving the audience, ironically, abandoned for the first time all evening.
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