Monday, 18 August 2014

Prom 37: Steve Reich

Steve Reich
Steve Reich
Steve Reich; Endymion, BBC Singers, David Hill; BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on Aug 13 2014
Star rating: 5.0

An hour or so of mesmeric phase shift minimalism - Late-night Steve Reich prom

Late night at the BBC Proms on Wednesday (13 Aug) was turned over to the experimentation of Steve Reich (1936-) and an hour or so of mesmeric phase shift minimalism. On the menu were 'It's gonna rain' and 'The Desert Music' performed by the BBC Singers and Endymion, and conducted by David Hill.

First on the bill was a recording of Reich's first work - 'It's gonna rain' which was written as a response to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Composed in 1965 'It's gonna rain' uses a speech of the evangelist Brother Walter recorded the year previously in Union Square, San Francisco. Apparently Reich discovered phase shift by accident because the two recorders he used in the studio to listen to it did not playback at exactly the same speed. But it was his genius that took this accident and ran with it.

Once you had got over the idea of there being an empty stage, and listening to a recording in such a magnificent concert venue as the Albert Hall, the cleverness and precision of Reich's technique, and his vision in producing the work, carry the listener away.

The phase shifting and processed sound result in auditory illusions (a bit like the spinning dancer for the ears). For me the first half the looping distortion produces the sound of rain and then a storm, as the length of the phase shift alters, which fades towards the end. Some people are reported to hear words not in the speech because, like the dancer, the brain invents things in an attempt to make sense of what it is hearing.

The second half is more processed and nightmarish, the 'Halleluiah' becoming the call of someone who has seen too much evil in a horror film, and not the laughing Brother Walter it was recorded from. In the programme notes Reich is quoted as saying 'The emotional feeling is that you're going through the cataclysm; you're experiencing what it's like to have everything dissolve.'

In some ways the venue was perfect for listening to this recording. The sound echoed around the, filling the space and somehow seeping into every pore. However the stereo effects were not noticeable at the sides of hall where I was sat – that said, the £5 prom-ers musts have had a fantastic experience.

David Hill: Picture credit John Wood
David Hill: Picture credit John Wood
In contrast the second work of the short concert, 'Desert music' from 1984, used many instruments, including two each of vibraphone, marimba, xylophone, plus two grand pianos and four synthesisers, two sets of timps, and lots of percussion requiring seven players. Strings were reduced to three each plus one double bass, and woodwind to four flutes/piccolos (optional brass were omitted). The ten singers were expanded to 26 and were, along with the strings and flutes, amplified. This arrangement meant that individual 'voices' could be heard without the line being blurred by several people playing the same part at once.

A longer work than 'It's gonna rain', 'Desert music' required intense concentration from all the musicians, and from David Hill to keep everyone together. Hill and the pitched percussionists were all dancing, using their whole bodies to keep the timing and fast tempo together, which made for a very visual (as well as excitingly audible) performance.

'Desert music' sets fragments of texts by William Carlos Williams (1883-1963). Born in New Jersey, Williams parallels Reich in that he was an experimental poet interested in non-conventional rhythms and meter in poetry. He was also a proponent of examining ordinary American issues in his work. Reich was first drawn William's work while he was still a teenager – largely due to the symmetry of William's name. But it is William's later work that Reich describes as his "finest", especially 'The Orchestra' (1955) which discusses the nuclear strike on Hiroshima and is included in 'Desert Music'. Other excerpts come from 'Theocritus Idyl I', and 'Asphodel, that greeny flower'.

Overall the work has an arch form. The different sections are tied together with the constant strong rhythms and polyrhythms, but also with a series of pulsating chords, – a kind of chattering pressure that demanded notice and punctuated the interludes between verses. Reich intends this to be a commentary on the text – expanding to a "wordless response to the question: 'Well, shall we think or listen?'".

Mixed in with all this rhythm, little bits of melody are turned into beautiful canons and fugues. In some places the strings briefly sounded like a Renaissance consort – but Reich compositionally takes things further, pushing past the Renaissance boundaries into his own emotional territory.

Reich's music is not for the faint hearted. But if you are willing to listen and go where ever the music takes you it can be very rewarding. My congratulations to BBC Singers, Endymion, and David Hill for this electrifying performance.

The Proms continue through to September. Promming tickets, where you get to stand in the main arena in front of the orchestra, can only be bought on the day and are only £5.
Reviewed by Hilary Glover

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