The UBS Soundscapes: Eclectica concert at LSO St. Luke's on the 12th October, billed as a celebration of Steve Reich's 75th birthday, was indeed a celebration, and also a tribute. The performance, by a chamber group of string, percussion and keyboard players from the London Symphony Orchestra, was infused with warm affection for the music. Their enthusiasm and desire to communicate was unfaltering, and their playing was full of sensitive expression.
At first in Music for Pieces of Wood , played on five sets of tuned claves, the exciting rhythms and the transitions from one rhythm to the next were the focus of my experience as a listener. Each entry from a new set of claves was played at a higher volume, and the other claves dropped down, so the new pattern was introduced like a jazz solo. This was entertaining to watch, and it also introduced the sound of each set of claves clearly so that it was easier to continue to pick them out once all the claves were playing together. Then the rise and fall of different rhythms, created by small alterations either in the way the pattern of a particular player fitted with the others, or in the patterns themselves, embraced the audience in a wash of foot-tapping, head-bobbing rhythmic movement.
A little way into the piece I found that I could hear the pitches of the claves more clearly - at the same as the rhythms, which had initially taken all my attention. Subtle melodies emerged as the pitches of the different claves alternated. The sequences of pitches in different permutations created a clear sense of different shapes - for example, pitches falling in sequence in a lilting rhythm became like circles, pitches alternating between high and low in an unpredictable rhythmic transition like zig-zags. I was reminded of Steve Reich's description of what happened when he first listened to the rhythms created by listening to two copies of a single tape loop at once through headphones. He described it as a physical experience, the sound moving around his body, from his head out over the floor and back, sometimes travelling, sometimes reverberating and shaking.
In Music for Pieces of Wood the listener gets to hear the way that a variety of rhythms played at the same time can be 'in sync' and 'out of sync' and to explore the resulting psychoacoustic effects. For the effects to work, the shaping of the rhythmic patterns, the balance between the instruments and the control of the pulse have be very strong, and the LSO players delivered all this with impressive ensemble.
Throughout the concert I found that the psychoacoustic effects of the music were stronger in a live concert than they have been in my previous experiences of Reich's music through remixes and recordings, and the live performance also added other dimensions. The music is full of technical challenges that create a visual experience, for example the dramatic choreography of Sextet as players leapt between instruments, and used bows to draw sound from the side of the vibraphone bars. In Violin Phase the musical challenges for a single violinist playing the same music as a tape, alongside the tape, initially in sync with it and then gradually drifting out of sync so that the music ricochets off itself over and over again, created an entirely different experience to that of hearing the piece on a recording.
Expecting the hypnotic effect of the music to be the overriding experience in Violin Phase , it was actually the sense of the tension between live performer and recorded performers that was overwhelming. Here was a live performer alone on the stage yet in an 'ensemble' that could not be an ensemble, playing with a recording that would never respond or adjust, could never make eye contact or share a cue, just go on relentlessly whatever happened. It was a physical feat to perform, and like a surfer, bristling with concentration and energy, the live performer rode the waves of music created by the recorded performers triumphantly.
Nagoya Marimbas was also a triumph. The virtuosity of the players meant that there was no hint of the agitation in the sound that can creep into this piece, just lithe and lyrical music swept up and down the register of the instrument and resonating through the floor into the feet of the audience.
Steve Reich described Different Trains as a homage to the living and the dead. Fragments of recorded speech and the rhythms of trains on tracks are combined, and reflected on the instruments of a string quartet. The music compares the train journeys that Reich was making as a child in America during 1939-1941 and the very different train journeys that were being made by Jewish children in Europe at this time. Among others, the recorded voices of Holocaust survivors telling their stories are used alongside the voice of a porter talking about the American railways.
This piece is deeply emotional, and the LSO players captured the emotional character of each section of the piece with great sensitivity and expression. Reich uses repetition in this piece to challenge the audience's imagination. Hearing the phrase "different trains" over and over, and then hearing the rhythm and inflection of the words played on the instruments, over and over, invites the initial response of imagining the trains in America and Europe in the past that we know Reich intends us to think about, and then to dwell on the images, over and over. And the sound of the trains themselves with the whistles and clattering of the track also evokes personal recollections of train journeys and draws us into empathy with different journeys. The repetition creates time to reflect, more time than music with less repetition gives us, more time than we might be comfortable being given.
The LSO players were mellifluous rather than mechanical in their renditions of the rhythms of the words, and the words themselves were a loud component, rather than a murmur, which created fewer pychoacoustic effects but many more psychological effects. The LSO players' absolute mastery of the music was evident. As the cheerful train whistles become sirens become external screams in the shrieking high clashing intervals in the strings, the music thwarts the listeners' sense of pulse, so that the loudest points arrive in unsettling unexpected rhythmic places, which was extremely disturbing and physically uncomfortable. The return of the music to the jolly rhythms of train and track is difficult for the audience and was unsparingly boldly delivered. Over the top the fragments of speech challenge us to continue to make connections in our own time, repeating the words "today", and "more". What is happening on the different trains around the world today? What will there be more of in the future, and what do we actually want there to be more of?
A particularly powerful aspect of the LSO's interpretation was their delivery of the short melodies and rhythms that copy the words of the tape. As the words on the tape spoke, for example "Go quick - and don't breathe", each time they were necessarily identical. As they were copied in the ensemble, the reflection was sometimes identical, sometimes slightly different, sometimes more intense, sometimes a little slow to speak, sometimes as though one of the words stuck in the throat with a sob. The version of the words spoken by the instruments was more human and alive than the static version by the recorded voice, which became mechanical by unnatural repetition of identical rhythm and inflection. This created a powerful sense of comparison between what is static and what is fluid and between voices that can no longer speak and voices that can. History that cannot be changed, and history that is being made now and is in our hands.