LIVE RTÉ LIVING MUSIC FESTIVAL, NATIONAL CONCERT HALL, PROJECT ARTS CENTRE, February 17-19, 2006 by Melissa Doran Steve Reich’s music was the focus of the RTÉ Living Music Festival, which took place over a weekend in the National Concert Hall, and the Project Arts Centre. It was an intimate festival, well organised and had a great atmosphere about it. It struck a delicate balance, appealing to the hands-in-the-pockets, know nothing types such as myself, as well as having enough substance to keep the theorists and musicians going. But of course we’re talking about Steve Reich here. To know him is to love him, right? In his public interview with RTÉ’s John Kelly he stated how it wasn’t important whether you understood all the background and theory and details about his music, or any music for that matter, so long as you felt it in your gut. That’s what’s important. Stealing from the programme notes, Reich has been described as “America’s greatest living composer,” by The Village Voice and “The most original musical thinker of our time,” by The New Yorker. He started composing in the mid sixties, experimenting with repetition in the forms of canon and phasing. In canon, one musician begins the repeating melody and a second begins the same melody at a later stage. In phasing, at a basic level, both musical lines begin at once, but one stays at a constant tempo while the other gradually speeds up and goes out of sync. So what happens is that these two loops eventually meet up and start again. The subtle diﬀerences that occur are what make it interesting. The opening night took place in the National Concert Hall and featured two Reich pieces as well as one by the American composer Morton Feldman, performed by the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra. It was a smooth introduction to the weekend, the audience giving the ﬁrst of many standing ovations to Reich as he got on stage to accept his applause. There was also a piece by James Tenney, who used to play in Reich’s group, “Having Never Written a Note for Percussion.” This was an amazing sombre piece, performed on three gongs. “Pendulum Music” (from 1968) consisted of four microphones swung on their leads oﬀ a frame over four speakers, and the sound was from the swishing rhythm that emerged as they gradually came to a standstill. The piece was just the repetitive whoosh getting louder and softer as the microphones moved over and back across the speakers. Eventually though, the underlying static feedback took the lead with a brain crushing sustained grrrrrrrr before all sound ended abruptly. Then came the 1970’s piece, “Four Organs,” which
uses four electric organs and a pair of maracas. Once they ﬁnd their place on the keyboard the musicians made no lateral movement with their hands, they found their discordant notes by either lifting their ﬁngers up or down in the same spot. The maracas kept a constant beat while the repeated phrases of the organs became increasingly complicated and started phasing out of time with it. The inclusion of Morton Feldman’s pieces on the programme was something that really challenged me. My ﬁrst introduction to his work came in the National Concert hall on the previous night, with his piece, “Neither.” He has a very minimal style, very diﬀerent to the early minimalism of Steve Reich. You could say he’s really minimal. The theory behind it is that Feldman was trying to create a space, or environment, with the instrumentation, in order to evoke the atmosphere of the words of the Beckett text it accompanies. The result was indeed atmospheric. It was deﬁnitely very unsettling. I tried to compensate for my overwhelming feeling of musical inadequacy by turning around to my sister next to me at a particularly climatic moment and saying “boo!” The next day however I found myself sitting on the hard wooden seats of Belvedere chapel, in the middle of a row, ﬂanked either side by two very respectable ladies. Too late, I consulted the programme to see that there was another Morton Feldman piece, “Piano and String Quartet.” It was a very quiet piece with little variation. It lasted just over an hour and a quarter. I oﬀered that the reason it was included was to highlight Reich’s brilliance and most of all his accessibility, but no one would give me an oﬃcial statement of agreement on that one. However, one of his pieces is just over six hours long so we must be thankful for small mercies. Three Reich pieces ended the night back in the O’Reilly Theatre. Reich himself came on stage to be one of two pairs of hands for his 1972 piece “Clapping Music.” Next came a solo piece “Cello Counterpoint” - the cellist played live against a pre-recorded version of the piece, doubling the instrumentation, the overlay being the counterpoint to the live performance. “City Life,” (from 1995) which used some of Reich’s ﬁeld recordings bringing to life New York city in all its vibrancy ended the night, to yet another standing ovation. The small theatre was packed, and it was pretty exhausting to keep going for the entire marathon day, but everyone’s heads were reeling from beauty overload, and there was smiles all round. Sunday came with more performances, this time in the Project Arts Centre as well as in the National Concert Hall. There was also a Composition Seminar on the Sunday for the serious music students, a once in a lifetime opportunity to talk to and learn from one of the most inﬂuential ﬁgures of modern composition. One of his most recent works, “You Are (Variations),” got its Irish debut at the ﬁnal event on Sunday night in the National Concert Hall, and his seminal piece, “Music for Eighteen Musicians” ended the weekend. This was the work that cemented his reputation as a . . . 75 . . .
genius in minimalism in the mid seventies. It still has all of its power now. The piece was performed with the touring Ensemble Modern, who collaborated with Synergy Vocals, with Sian Edwards conducting. The performers move between instruments, especially taking turns at the xylophones. They appear charismatic on stage, smiling away to each other. This was a ﬁtting highlight to end the weekend. I entered that weekend a troubled young soul and by the end I was having beautiful dreams of daﬀodils and snowdrops spurting up from the ground, heralding the beginning of spring.
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NATIONAL CONCERT HALL, EARLSFORT TERRACE, DUBLIN Steve Reich/Ensemble Moderne (Living Music Festival) Music for 18 Musicians February 19, 2006 by Liam Mac Gabhann The closing concert in this festival, before a packed NCH, featured what may be Reich’s most famous composition. The length of any performance of 18 Musicians is dependent on the technique of the players - the 1998 recording on Nonesuch records was more than ten minutes longer than the ﬁrst recorded version from ECM in the 1970s, “because of the breathing patterns of the clarinetist.” The Ensemble Moderne gave us an impressively driven performance. The bassoonists repeatedly played a single note but moved towards and away from the microphone to give an impression of movement, sounding a bit like train wheels moving past a ﬁxed point. The four female vocalists seemed to be having a great time, grinning broadly while intoning their single syllables over and over, then changing to another one. The percussionists moved from marimba to vibraphone to metallophone, keeping the 6/8 rhythm steady throughout the performance, but adding and changing polyrhythms, something which Reich presumably gleaned from his study of African music. My attention wandered here and there, but it was an involving night of music. Something else which did grab my attention, but not in a good way, was one guy sitting three rows from the front, who shook his head violently from side to side for the entire night, a bit like David Gray attached to a motor. Somehow he had kept the two seats either side of him free, and he held his arms across them as if he could meditate and loosen his cerebral cortex simultaneously. It must have been very distracting for anyone sitting close behind him, because he wasn’t even doing it in time. But at least he was listening to the music.