Steve Reich’s music can sound rather frictionless and polished on disc, producing the effect of a smooth, glowing surface, a machine that envelopes and entrances. And Reich, now 81, has gone from genre-busting, serialist-denying firebrand and outsider to establishment grandee. But Reich live, as this performance attested, is a different music altogether, shedding much of that cultural baggage and indeed the mood of his music on record. 

The Colin Currie Group © Chris Gloag
The Colin Currie Group
© Chris Gloag

In this “Time Phase” concert The Colin Currie Group, founded by the eponymous soloist to perform Reich’s music in 2006, offered us six pieces surveying nearly fifty years of the composer’s career. The concert is part of a series of concerts reflecting on musical time at Kings Place, Time Unwrapped, overseen by violinist Hugo Ticciati. 

There was nothing cerebral or mechanical about New York Counterpoint (1985), for solo clarinet and pre-recorded clarinet tracks: Timothy Lines gave us vibrant, Stravinskian hocketing and capricious jazziness. We were not watching some cooly abstract compositional process unfold; rather, the pre-recorded tracks were a foil for quasi-improvisatory outbursts and seductive lyricism from the soloist, live music alternately blending with and detaching from the amplified recorded textures. The contemporary counterpart to this in the second half, Vermont Counterpoint (1982), for solo flautist and recording track, had similar flashes of brilliance, but felt more piecemeal and less integrated, despite punctilious and committed playing from Rowland Sutherland. 

Reich’s music exemplifies what he calls “ensemble virtuosity”. There is something of the high-wire act about the way the performers, with precision and delicacy, gradually slow or speed up the phased rhythmic patterns, or shift these interlocking rhythmic patterns forward or back by a single pulse. Music for Pieces of Wood (1973) is edge-of-the-seat stuff when done properly – as it was here – whose five parts for wooden blocks suspend in the air a delicate, glittering musical structure, held together by the intense concentration of the performers. 

The warm acoustic of Kings Place is apt for Reich’s music, especially given the programme’s preponderance of vibraphone and marimba. Mallet Quartet (2009), for a pair of vibes and two five-octave marimbas, was startling. The frenetic canon and imitation of the two vibraphone parts, one played with quicksilver, jangling brilliance by Colin Currie himself, manifested surface textures characterised by intense, frenetic activity, jostling repetition and transformation in the melodic material. At the same time two marimbas slowly work at the deepwater swells and currents of the harmony, their warm bass register generating a background glow like organ pedals or bells. These elements combine to produce the paradoxical experience of Reich’s music, which holds together a shimmering, volcanic surface with tectonic slowness.

Quartet, the most recent piece and dedicated to Colin Currie himself, offered many of these pleasures, though it is more undulating and bell-like, with its combination of two pianos and vibes. Its slower middle section lacked the sap and focus of the outer parts, and felt a little directionless, with its glowing, open harmonies leading nowhere especially interesting in this instance.    

Part 1 of Reich’s breakout 1971 masterpiece Drumming was unquestionably the highlight of the evening. The visual spectacle of the piece itself is quite something: four players going hammer-and-tongs, so to speak, on four pairs of tuned bongos, arranged in a line from front to back of the stage, two players each side, for a quarter of an hour. It was performed with a sustained fierceness and immediacy that bypassed the normal cognitive faculties and went straight to the base of the spine. I am certain it made my fillings rattle. That it is characteristically performed without a score doubtless add to the piece’s disconcerting shamanic quality, as if the piece is a conduit for the otherworldly. 

Drumming drew out the brilliantly uncanny aspects of Reich’s music, and reminded one that this is not music to write emails to or soundtrack adverts for car insurance. Reich’s “phase” pieces, when they work, are like wandering around inside a giant optical illusion, or a painting by Bridget Riley, where a strange new structure emerges exquisitely and inexorably from the fractal-like patterning of shifting rhythmic units. This can be quite a disconcerting experience, as disruptive and modernist as the avant-garde that Reich et al. were pitching themselves against. The Colin Currie Group might’ve given off a laid-back, utilitarian vibe that evening, with open shirts and unfussy black trousers, but this is music of utmost seriousness and intensity.