Kings Place is my new favourite London arts venue. It is the venue of choice for several prominent ensembles, and it is easy to see why. Acoustically fantastic concert halls provide opportunities for all sorts of music in a formal concert setting, whilst the large open spaces allow for more relaxed performances, where the audience can buy drinks, sit down and listen (or not). It is all kinds of cool.

Steve Reich © Wonge Bergmann
Steve Reich
© Wonge Bergmann

In keeping with this image, on the weekend of 14-16 September it played host to the Kings Place Festival 2012. Over 100 concerts of music from every conceivable genre, featuring world-class soloists, stand-up comedy by the likes of Ardal O’Hanlon, and a variety of family-friendly events were crammed into just three days. A sizeable proportion of these were free, but ticketed events cost just £4.50 a head. As with any good music festival, in the foyer there were various food and drink options, and even a sweet stall (hurrah!), to draw in the crowds. Unsurprisingly, therefore, Kings Place was abuzz when I visited to listen to a concert of three of Steve Reich’s Counterpoint pieces given by principal players of the London Sinfonietta, which has its headquarters at the venue.

To summarise unjustly briefly, Reich is a US composer, born in 1936, famous for pioneering minimal music and for his use of tape loops in combination with live instruments. The idea for his Counterpoint series was developed in the 1980s, but using techniques he pioneered as early as the 1960s. Each takes the concept of a live musician performing alongside a multi-track recording of himself; short phrases are repeated at fixed distances from one another, with the soloists leading a gradual build-up of musical layers. Through this repetition, the pieces have a hypnotic effect, and it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish the live sound from the recorded.

For some unexplained reason, the concert started half an hour late, and we were made to wait in the foyer as the air became increasingly warm. Most people did not appear to be overly concerned, and when we were eventually let into the stunning Hall One, the pre-concert chatter was as lively as it might be in any other circumstance. There was no concert programme; rather, the 82-page brochure provided a short, but informative paragraph on the music being performed. I didn't feel deprived as a result – a quick introduction was really all that was needed to understand and appreciate the pieces being performed (the theme was, after all, “minimal materials”...).

First, we heard Vermont Counterpoint for amplified flute and tape, played by the London Sinfonietta’s principal flautist, Michael Cox. Although the musical ideas evolved very rapidly, there were four distinct sections, each flowing seamlessly into the other. The recorded flute lines, scored for piccolo, flute and alto flute, flooded the concert hall as Cox deftly switched between flutes on stage.

Next, cellist Tim Gill played Cello Counterpoint. The repeated notes and steady rhythm of the phrases in this piece allowed Gill to play with great energy; his approach was perhaps more soloistic than Cox’s, though their interpretations were equally welcome – the cello’s timbre meant it was always going to be easier to distinguish it from the recorded lines than the flute, and Cello Counterpoint had more of a pulsating effect than Vermont Counterpoint.

The final piece was New York Counterpoint, for live B flat clarinet and recorded B flat and bass clarinets, played by Mark van der Wiel. Of the three soloists, my impression was than van der Wiel best understood Steve Reich’s music. In three movements, the piece, like the others, takes short phrases and layers them, but New York Counterpoint had a distinctly different feel. To paraphrase Reich’s own words, the opening pulses came from Music for 18 Musicians, and the minimalist music had a quite obvious impressionistic element to it, most particularly in the final movement, which, in its rhythms and harmonies had a dance-like, New-York-jazz vibe to it.

The concert lasted around half an hour; a brief introduction to Reich’s utterly fascinating output. I would have loved to have seen more pieces in the programme, whether similar to, or contrasting with, the nature of the Counterpoints. However, the idea of the Kings Place festival is to introduce people to music they might not otherwise choose to listen to, so in this sense the brevity was ideal. It is a pity that the concert started well behind schedule and that there was a “technical hitch” between the first and second items, but apart from that it was an enjoyable performance. As we left the concert hall, an a cappella group was performing in the downstairs open space, and a solo folk-pop duo were playing and singing in the upstairs foyer. There’s clearly a lot going on at Kings Place, and I will certainly be returning for next year’s Festival, if not before.