Steve Reich’s music holds my attention like no other and I’m not alone in relishing the prolonged rush of hooking up to one of his pulsating musical processes. Across the weekend, the Barbican added to the ongoing celebration of his 80th birthday with two days of concerts, talks and a new video installation. Saturday’s three-part evening concert presented a cross section of his varied output, from the ultimate process piece, Pendulum Music, to the recent video-opera, Three Tales. The programme called upon an assortment of ensembles akin to an end-of-term concert, an adoring audience wishing the very best from them. Reich was there, stood at the back behind the sound desk, black-capped as ever.

Steve Reich in conversation with Beryl Korot © Mark Allan | Barbican
Steve Reich in conversation with Beryl Korot
© Mark Allan | Barbican

Setting out his stall in his 1968 essay Music as a Gradual Process, Reich stated his interest in creating “a compositional process and a sounding music that are one and the same thing”, but, he also wanted “to be able to hear the process happening throughout the sounding music”. Reich wanted to have his cake and eat it, to write music which satisfied his commitment both to art and to his listeners.

Pendulum Music is the embodiment of this dual focus; “pulling back a swing, releasing it, and observing it gradually come to rest” is how he actually describes a gradual musical process and that’s exactly what happens in this ‘happening’. Suspended microphones are pulled back and released over their amplifier, creating a controlled feedback loop. Left to return to stasis, their tick-tock tones eventually become drones, at which point the plug is pulled. About a minute after the process was initiated, a melodic motif began to emerge from the free-form counterpoint; I was transfixed, fulfilling Reich's hope that a listener might be absorbed by the process, by the music. But, to what end? When was the last time something held your undivided attention for more than ten minutes? 

Minimalist music is cherished for its transportive and beguiling qualities, but Reich manages to take you away not so much through escape, but by fixing you to the spot. But, this hyper-attentive way of listening needn't always be intense. Nagoya Guitars, a short bopping guitar duet, brought smiles to the performers and audience alike, preparing us for the evening’s first Reich classic, Electric Counterpoint. 

This was a rare performance, “Big-Band Counterpoint” as the leader of the guitar ensemble, Dither, described it. Written for 13 guitars (including two basses) it’s usually performed by only one live guitarist, the other 12 pre-recorded. I’ve never seen it done this way, but I know now that I will always prefer it done ‘Big-Band’ style. Watching the group play, it felt very little like a performance of the piece, and more as if they were creating something live on stage. The players made no effort to hide their time-keeping methods, periodically bobbing the neck of their instruments as one, allowing the audience to become involved in the process of making music.

European première of <i>Pulse</i> © Mark Allan | Barbican
European première of Pulse
© Mark Allan | Barbican

I got to know Electric Counterpoint on the same 1989 Nonesuch Records release as Different Trains. Written for string quartet and tape (including three more string quartets as well as voice and train samples) it’s not a process piece, but part autobiography, part WW2 documentary. For me, it’s much more at home on record; it’s headphone music. I want to be absorbed in the dense string texture, the voices to speak directly into my ears and the train whistles to pass right through my body. Watching the quartet play whilst listening to the tape was awkward, as if the piece had been deconstructed. If a conventional String Quartet is like a play, Different Trains is like a film, both in its superior ability to absorb its consumer and also its singular, immutable form. Unlike the performance of Electric Counterpoint, the players — principals from the Britten Sinfonia — were powerless to do anything other than simply play in time.

This was not the case for Pulse, of which the orchestra gave its European première. Reminiscent of Music for 18 Musicians, this piece proves just how important pulse has been to Reich’s sound. Over this motoric drive, Reich spun a mellifluous conversation between strings and winds, which gave it, as indeed he hoped, “a calmer, more contemplative” quality; maybe he’s softening with age!

<i>Three Tales</i> © Mark Allan | Barbican
Three Tales
© Mark Allan | Barbican

I mentioned the warmth in the room. Three Tales began with an awful false start, but the hall just laughed it off. This video-opera – Reich’s soundtrack and live music synchronised with a film by Beryl Korot – dwells on the darker side of three of the 20th century’s most striking technological advances. The level of synchronicity between the large ensemble and the images and soundtrack was incredible, a real feet of listening and concentration. The sheer complexity of Three Tales proves that Steve Reich most definitely was a minimalist composer, but he has, and always will be, a great one.