Every once in a while a man must confront his demons, if only to confirm that his irrational prejudices are still intact. One set of my black beasts is the extended family known as Minimalism, a diverse confraternity (naturally) with powerful friends at court. I met a small knot of them at Kings Place in London, where they were in company with the Colin Currie Quartet. The maestro and his colleagues – Owen Gunnell, Adrian Spillett and Sam Walton – were the star act headlining the opening events of “Sound Unwrapped”, a year-long extravaganza of concerts, installations and beanbag-themed happenings.

Colin Currie
© Viktor Erik Emanuel

I have previously described Currie and his friends as daredevils and super-heroes, for their bravura performances of Xenakis. For this concert they showed up as master-puppeteers, seeking to animate works that sometimes resisted their sterling efforts. John Luther Adam’s Qilyuan, a piece for four bass drums, was played from the gallery, not just to it; at the ground level location where I was sitting, one of its heads seemed to be murmuring quietly to itself whilst the other three growled at me, trying to sound menacing but slinking away without a fight. 

Rolf Wallin’s Twine, for marimba and xylophone, described the antics of a couple of the marginal beasts that escaped the pen of a medieval scribe during his tea break; and David Lang’s So Called Laws of Nature Part 2, played on identical sets of drums and metal pipes, tried, somewhat wistfully, to wind-up a robot designed by Wittgenstein to stare down the explanations of natural phenomena. In this latter case, the players could have been operatives at their desks in a call-centre talking to irate customers from four different parts of the world, but providing the same response, as dictated by company policy.

The Colin Currie Quartet
© Viktor Erik Emanuel

At the core of the programme was the double-headed monster of Steve Reich’s Drumming (part 1) and Connor Shafran’s Continental Divide. Needless to say, the heads were not identical since Reich and his piece are senior members of Minimalist royalty, whilst Shafran and his are not. Even so, the players treated them with equal respect – parity of esteem amongst the tired-sounding tuned bongos. The choreography here was very amusing, being reminiscent of an old country dance with the players swapping partners at irregular intervals, and doing it with attention to the proper etiquette demanded by tradition.

The Colin Currie Quartet
© Viktor Erik Emanuel

After all that came the mega-beast itself, Julia Wolfe’s Dark Full Ride, a title serving as the strapline for the programme. Scored for identical drum-kits, the hi-hat cymbal is the sovereign presence for the first half of the piece; its power is then usurped by the drums, an act which leads of anarchy – as is often the case in real life. As instigators of this drama, the players laid into the kits with some purpose, but there is only so much one man – or four – can do with granite-like material that defies moulding or sculpting to any great effect. A single kit, in the hands of a master such as Keith Moon, would conjure up something far greater than the sum of its parts.

All in all, I was grateful for the opportunity to visit an area of the musical map I do not often frequent, the locality where ancient cartographers warned of dragons. I returned home satisfied that some of Minimalism’s kinfolk are no more frightening than Death’s Head moths or cathedral gargoyles. 

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