Friday, 24 April 2015

A Marriage of Science and Art - Three Tales at the Science Museum

Steve Reich and Beryl Korot Three Tales; Ensemble BPM, dir: Matthew Eberhardt, cond: Nick Sutcliffe; IMAX Cinema, Science Museum
Three Tales at Science Museum IMAX
Steve Reich and Beryl Korot Three Tales; Ensemble BPM, dir: Matthew Eberhardt, cond: Nick Sutcliffe; IMAX Cinema, Science Museum
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 22 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Reich and Korot's video opera, in an IMAX at the Science Museum

Three Tales (1998-2002) is one of Steve Reich's video operas created with the video artist Beryl Korot (the two are married). In form Three Tales echoes their first essay in the genre The Cave (1990-93). Three Tales made a reappearance in London at the hands of Ensemble BPM at the Science Museum's IMAX Cinema on 22 April 2015. The venue and the date are significant. 22 April is the centenary of the first use of nerve gas in World War One, a date which marks the commencement of our fascination with weapons of mass destruction and the subject of a conference whose delegates attended the performance of Three Tales.

Steve Reich and Beryl Korot Three Tales; Ensemble BPM, dir: Matthew Eberhardt, cond: Nick Sutcliffe; IMAX Cinema, Science Museum
Three Tales
The piece was conducted by Nick Sutcliffe in a production directed by Matthew Eberhardt, designed by Gillean Denny with lighting by Stuart Webb.

Three Tales takes three episodes in 20th century history chosen as key moments, examining man's relationship to technology. The first, the Hindenberg Disaster, when the German passenger airship crashed in 1937 killing 36. The first disaster to be captured on cinema newsreels. The second, the bombing of Bikini atoll, as part of the USA's atomic tests in 1946-1958. The third, the successful cloning of Dolly the sheep which led to a greater consideration of man's relationship to technology.

Beryl Korot's video uses archive footage and interviews, intercut and re-purposed; though there is a documentary narrative element, this is combined with a thoroughgoing artistic viewpoint. The sound-track combines found sound, original sound-track and Steve Reich's music. Much of the music originated in Steve Reich's technique of shadowing the vocal inflections exactly, mimicking the person's intonations. All this combined with live musicians via a click track. Playing live Ensemble BPM consisted of two pianos, two vibraphones, two drum kits, the Ligeti String Quartet and Synergy Vocals. Laid out in front of us, they looked remarkably factory-like, a machine for creating music. All of course were miked.

Gillean Denny's designs consisted mainly of items dotted around the playing area evoking the three different tales, and a greater visual effect came from Stuart Webb's dramatic lighting which made the most of the theatrical impact of a non-theatrical (and rather blandly neutral) space.

Steve Reich and Beryl Korot Three Tales; Ensemble BPM, dir: Matthew Eberhardt, cond: Nick Sutcliffe; IMAX Cinema, Science Museum
Three Tales
I have to confess that the my main reaction to the piece was philosophical rather then musical. Steve Reich's score underlined and underpinned the message rather than providing primary musical interest. There were times though, that it seemed quite dominant. I did wonder about the balance in the cinema (not a natural acoustic space) because in the Hindenberg sections the two side drums seemed to have a very dominating effect on the texture. For much of the time, the detail of what the Ligeti Quartet were playing was hidden by everything else that was going on and I would have liked them to be a bit stronger in the mix.

For the first two tales the overall combination was a fascinating mix of sound and visuals, merging into a single whole but for the last one with its extensive use of talking heads I found that I started to pay greater attention to what was being said. During the long, and thoughtful discussions about the morality and more of cloning, Steve Reich and Beryl Korot seemed to balance points of view. But though the pronouncements of Richard Dawkins were nicely contrasted to the wonderfully poetic musings of a Rabbi, I felt there was a little to much of the rather dogmatic Dawkins in the mix.

Ensemble BPM first performed the work in 2010 (the first UK performance since the work's UK premiere in 2002) and took it to Tete a Tete: The Opera Festival in 2010. Nick Sutcliffe and his performers showed admirable control and poise throughout the proceedings, creating some magical musical textures from their machine for making music.


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