This was a fantastic event to end a marvellous weekend festival – typically Glasgow in its ‘casual’ construction of magnificent all-inclusive, all-encompassing, multi-arts events. And this portion of the festival was resided over personally by Steve Reich, who is described as a “demanding critic” of the performances of his compositions. His presence is educational and completing, providing the often unusual third tip of the performer, composer, audience triangle.

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

The concert captured a snapshot of the beating heart of Reich’s pioneering, compositional minimalism (quite viscerally, given the beating nature of his rhythms) – beginning with a piece stripped bare to the essential and ancestral, Music for Pieces of Wood. The Colin Currie Group were masterful and thorough to the last detail. No wonder, considering their close working relationship with Reich from the group’s conception. This tricky, technically demanding piece was executed to such effect and rhythmic perfection, presenting a weave of interlocking rhythms and combinations of parts that commanded the entire concert hall. The group managed to achieve such expression with what might seem like merely the limiting woodblock that it sent excited shivers, but then, therein lies Reich’s genius. When the piece ended, the silence poured in like a furious waterfall, showing the extent to which Reich and Group harnessed the environment.

Quartet added colourful layers to this gesso that cleansed the hall. But it still remained powerfully stripped – visualised by the topless piano of the two, whose guts are magnified and mirrored by the two vibraphones. An unconventional quartet indeed. The percussionists achieved beautiful resonance against the brooding, syncopated underlay of the pianos. The ensemble emphasised moments of clarity in the relentless, extraordinary sound world created, with hints of Jazz and Asian influences. It is important to note that all varying ensembles functioned smoothly throughout the concert, as a minimalist machine. Shimmers of excellence sparked from each player, but it is almost impossible to pick out individuals due to the intention of the music so striving, amidst the cogs and wheels, to capture essences.

Synergy’s Scat-like vocals in Music for 18 Musicians were entrancing, particularly the well-pitched higher notes that pinged out effortlessly from Joanna Forbes L’Estrange. This piece further emphasises Reich’s intention to blur the line between body and instrument, environment and ensemble. It is incredible to watch and hear, a feat of stamina as well as musical ability. But it still feels accessible and carnal to a unique degree. The coloured lighting changed at points in the piece as if to sober the audience, to bring us out of the trance then slowly lower us back into the pot. Mention must be given to the engineers behind the sound and lighting. Especially David Sheppard (Sound Engineer), without whose command of the ensemble and venue the piece would be incomplete.

Symmetry is inescapable in this monumental piece. There are moments of clarity and moments of dissolution, just as in Music for Pieces of Wood. The bass clarinets (Timothy Lines and Daniel Broncano) had particular impact, and the textures and layers of voices throughout the musicians were extraordinarily alive, gelling harmoniously and in unison, in a Performance Art-like evocation. Again, similarly to Quartet, the quizzical high melody of the metallophone, heralding section changes, contrasts with the darker piano lines, playing with patterns of musical light above the melee. All three pieces are metamorphic, and the performers were too, with instrumentalists typically doubling up in Music for 18 Musicians. Choreographed, they moved easily around the stage. Reich’s creations are crying out for more collaboration.

I highly recommend anyone and everyone to take any opportunity they might have to witness Reich live, as well as the Colin Currie Group and Synergy Vocals. We are lucky to consult him whilst we still can, and to have such open laboratories for new music unbelievably nearly 50 years old. This concert and weekend was a splendid celebration of minimalism and collaboration.