American in London: The Influence of Steve Reich, Part 1


I’ve just returned from day one of the Barbican’s “Reverberations: The Influence of Steve Reich” festival in London, a 14-hour marathon of epic proportions that would give even the most obsessive Bang on a Can fan a run for their money. I should admit upfront that my intention here is not necessarily to review these concerts—your jet-lagged correspondent was physically unable to see every single performance—but to share a young American composer’s impressions of this fantastic and wide-reaching celebration of an American icon.

The first day of the festival was broken into three “sessions,” the first two of which took place at the beautiful St. Luke’s Church. Each concert began with a work that seemed to reset the audience’s ears and bring us back to the core of Reich’s music; session one began with So Percussion, in their London debut, performing the 1973 classic Music for Pieces of Wood. It was easy to hear Reich’s influence in the next work, Imaginary City, collectively composed by the members of So. But I wonder if we are hearing Reich’s direct influence or the influence of a Reich-inspired generation (David Lang, Michael Gordon, Evan Ziporyn) on these young composer/performers? Either way, Imaginary City has many electrifying moments, my favorite being a unison drumbeat with shimmering marimbas that burst onto the scene after ten minutes of watery ambience. Pulse is the core of this music, but it’s a different pulse than Reich’s; So Percussion’s music has a resolutely 21st-century beat to it, a syncopated, dance-like mania in every moment.

The first concert also included a set by the Bang on a Can All-Stars, performing works by Andriessen, Lukas Ligeti, and Steve Martland. Lukas Ligeti’s Glamour Girl, inspired by African music, opened their set, exploding into a beautiful web of counterpoint sweetened by a crisp, jangly guitar part. It’s easy to make a connection between Lukas Ligeti and Reich; both compose using rhythmic cells, simultaneous tempos and African-inspired rhythms. But again, I wonder if it’s not something more. Could it be that Reich’s clear and unabashed quotations of non-Western music helped open the door for young composers like Ligeti, who could feel free to quote and transform music from anywhere in the world? Andriessen’s Life is a classic late-Andriessen work pulled apart and laid bare, with textures that are simultaneously more romantic and more angular than the iconic Andriessen works. A startling second movement was almost folk-like, and a short third movement used the strings to imitate the sound of a finger drawn quickly across Venitian blinds. Crystalline films by Marijke van Warmerdam showed a series of simple, painterly images; a couple on a park bench, a rain-splattered window. Andriessen calls this “a contemporary Pictures at an Exhibition,” explaining that it is the latest in his exploration of “the lukewarm waters of romanticism.” The first concert concluded with performances of Martland’s Horses of Instruction and Reich’s Sextet, but I chose that moment to duck out and talk to members of eighth blackbird and Todd Reynolds about Steve Reich, dentistry, koans, and jet lag.

Session two included a varied set by Kronos Quartet, beginning with the UK premiere of Michael Gordon’s Clouded Yellow. This work combines Gordon’s trademark glissandos with intense drones on the viola and cello, and effectively evoked the inspiration for the work (a species of butterfly from Northern Africa). Scott Johnson’s “It Raged” from How it Happened combined nearly constant samples of the voice of I.F. Stone. The sonic connection to Reich was most clear in Johnson’s work, in that he uses the pitches and rhythms of speech as source material, and tackles a huge extra-musical subject: Stone’s discussions of how technology interacts with our basic human impulses and needs. This exciting trio of works ended with the world premiere of Bryce Dessner’s Tenebre. This beautiful new work, dedicated to longtime Kronos lighting designer Laurence Neff, is based on the traditional Holy Week service, in which 15 candles are gradually extinguished. Dessner, in his own words, “inverts the service,” drawing the listener from darkness into light. Renaissance influences combined with driving, repetitive four-bar phrases, culminating in—spoiler alert—the pre-recorded voice of Sufjan Stevens, multiplying into an enveloping, ecstatic coda.

Derek Johnson, who performed with Bang on a Can, gave a riveting performance of Electric Counterpoint, followed by So Percussion performing David Lang’s The So-Called Laws of Nature. In the program note for this epic work, Lang poses a koan that could refer to most of the music on this festival: “Does the music come out of the patterns or in spite of them?” I find The So-Called Laws of Nature to be a highly emotional, moving work, though it is constructed entirely out of a tightly wound series of identical patterns displaced between the players. Why does this math bring me to tears? I feel that much of Lang’s and Reich’s music walks the line between two emotional extremes, the straight lines of math combined with some sort of curved, unpredictable element. In The So-Called Laws of Nature this element is the instrumentation; flowerpots, teacups, pieces of wood and metal that the performers are called upon to assemble themselves. The afternoon session at St. Luke’s concluded with an intimate set by Clogs, a band that has influenced many young composers of the post-Bang on a Can era.

The evening’s concert at the Barbican center began with a brilliantly programmed set by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by the wonderful André de Ridder. The concert opened with Reich’s first orchestral work, Variations for Winds, Strings and Keyboards. The work is a chaconne stretched into a strange and meditative journey. A Renaissance-inflected melody played by three oboes harkened back to the Dessner premiere earlier in the day, while the steady transpositions through each key foreshadowed Michael Gordon’s work later on the program. Anna Clyne’s driving, relentless Rewind was next, followed by what to me was one of the highlights of the evening, Michael Gordon’s Rewriting Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. There are some things that you just don’t mess with, and until I heard this piece, I thought Beethoven was one of them. But Gordon manages to combine the nostalgia and familiarity of Beethoven with the intensity of his own compositional voice to create a remarkable work. He directly quotes themes from the symphony in each movement, using them as raw materials of the work. In the second movement, for example, the theme from Beethoven’s second movement spirals upward, transposing a half-step higher each time. As a Beethoven fanatic I went through an exhilarating series of emotions, from a feeling of intense familiarity with the themes to unease at hearing them torn apart by glissandos and unexpected transpositions, to a delicious thrill at feeling happily lost between centuries.

Tyondai Braxton then performed pieces from his album Central Market with members of the BBC Symphony, another highlight of the evening. On the surface Braxton’s music may seem to be the opposite of Steve Reich; it is prog-inflected collage music instead of a gradually unfolding process or a step-by-step layering of textures. But Central Market seems to be close to Reich philosophically; it is a truly modern, surprising ensemble of singers, kazoo players, five electric guitars, electronics, and chamber orchestra. Braxton has created a new sound, and this desire to explore new sonic territory, new instrumentations and forms, this fearlessness, may be the most important legacy that Reich leaves to the next generation. The second Kronos Quartet performance of the day included Bryce Dessner’s Aheym (Homeward), an arrangement of Perotin, and the European premiere of WTC 9/11, a set that I unfortunately had to miss in order to eat my first meal of the day.

The rest of the evening was a steady, two-hour-long crescendo, through a manic and boisterous performance of Dan Deacon’s Ghostbuster Cook: The Origin of the Riddler with So Percussion, Lee Ranaldo’s How Deep Are Rivers, performed by the Bang on a Can All-Stars, and the London premiere of Reich’s 2X5. I saw the New York premiere of 2X5 at Carnegie Hall last week, and was pleased that the Barbican turned up the volume for the London premiere. This performance had an energy and looseness missing from the New York concert—maybe it helped that it was after midnight at this point! At the end of the very long day—the day of concerts was apparently the longest that the Barbican has produced in its history—I was exhilarated and exhausted, and ready to do it all again.