Artist Gerhard Richter has long been fascinated by music, producing works in response to Bach, the aleatoric games of John Cage, Reich himself as well as a collaboration with “holy minimalist” Arvo Pärt. (His work even appears on the cover of Sonic Youth’s 1988 Daydream Nation.) What those four composers share is a fascination with austere, formal procedures that bloom into profound expressiveness and Richter’s own art explores the tensions between cool mechanical reproduction and dynamic painterly effusiveness.

Colin Currie and the Britten Sinfonia © Tom Howard | Barbican
Colin Currie and the Britten Sinfonia
© Tom Howard | Barbican

This collaboration with Steve Reich – Reich/Richter – is presented for the first time in the UK: it has already been seen in The Shed, a cool Hudson Yards art space in New York, where it accompanied new wallpapers and tapestries by Richter. This sold-out performance at the Barbican was led by experienced Reich interpreter Colin Currie, whose performances of this music are rightly renowned, and the versatile Britten Sinfonia. Reich himself looked on from the projection desk in the stalls.

The film for Reich/Richter was devised by the artist and filmmaker Corinna Belz. The pair chopped up one of Richter’s paintings, breaking the image down into its component pixels and multiplying and refracting it outwards. It begins with a simple set of slowly modulating horizontal stripes before breaking out into more psychedelic and jagged shapes that ooze and divide vertically across the screen above the orchestra. Its slow accretion of new forms and patterns gives it an ecstatic monumentality and a reminder that both artist and composer here are in the business of making large tableaux that beguile.

The work is presented as one organic whole but its changes of direction, mood and pace are dictated by what seemed to be effortless, nearly miraculous, coordination of score and visuals, forging a keen synergy of both music and film. One section whose colours and shapes seem to evoke the pageantry of a Latin American Diá de Muertos draws queasy, unearthly textures from the more guttural reaches of the ensemble. Richter’s paintings often scrape the paint over the canvas using a squeegee and this film allows us not only to see this smearing happen before our eyes, but to hear it too, in chords that accumulate and spread.

If some of Reich’s more recent compositions have retreated to safer musical territory – the Copland-esque pastoral Americana of 2015’s Pulses say – then Richter has stirred something adventurous. The often garish kaleidoscopes on screen summon acidic dissonances and cluster chords in the music; combinations of high winds strings, almost microtonal in their clashes, are even redolent of Ligeti. There is still Reich’s predilection for the enfolding middle registers in this kind of ensemble (clarinets, viola, low flute, jazzy augmented chords halfway up the piano) but bright percussion attacks and the darker lower reaches of the keyboard give this score a symphonic grandeur and chiaroscuro.

As the work unfolds, the rate of visual change increases in speed and variety. The final minutes return to the horizontal lines of the opening, now blooming and vibrating with renewed intensity: Reich’s music becomes more desperate and declamatory, with Currie making the drama explicit in his movements and cues. It ends with a thrilling sudden blackout.

Steve Reich, Colin Currie and the Britten Sinfonia © Tom Howard | Barbican
Steve Reich, Colin Currie and the Britten Sinfonia
© Tom Howard | Barbican

The work’s title is split by a forward slash. This punctuation points to the work’s pitfalls as well to its dynamism. A slash can point to both connection and conflict and the coordination of the two different works is often powerful and doesn’t do much to explore how one might ironise or shadow the other, preferring consonance between forms. There are some longueurs where the relationship of music and visuals are strained, losing both eye and ear. But its most exciting and expansive sequences, in the near darkness of the auditorium, make for a unique experience. Currie is one of the most dynamic performers of Reich’s music, really showing how it comes into its own when performed live.

This was particularly true at the opening of the concert, which began with another recent work, Runner, for much the same forces as Reich/Richter (two pianos, a smattering of strings, clarinet, oboe, flute and tuned percussion). In five movements yet proceeding without a break, Reich explores different subdivisions of a consistent pulse, giving the work an overarching unity that is also found in the return of key melodic motifs, though the latter are not among his most imaginative inventions. Currie’s jagged and dramatic cues helped to punctuate the work with moments of dramatic and lyrical intensity; woodwind and percussion attacks gave bite to a work that sometimes sags. The Britten Sinfonia made the works diaphanous, translucent, ending mysterious and fragile.

****1