Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Ha...ha...happ...happy....happy b....happy birth...

Back in January I hosted a birthday bash for Phillip Glass, but today is infinitely more special as today is the birthday of my personal favourite modern composer. October 3rd, 2007 is when Steve Reich turns 71! Reich is a personal hero of mine, ever since I went to see some of his work played in the National Concert Hall last year. Here's what I thought of that performance (bear in mind this was written just after the concert and I was still on a high, so please excuse the hyperbole)

Ladies & Gentlemen, may I please introduce one of the most influential musicians of our time.

Mr Steve Reich.

This weekend just passed marked the 3rd annual Living Music Festival, sponsored by RTE. A three day festival encompassing performances, interviews and other events all based around the theme of contemporary classical music. This year, along with performances of Phillip Glass, Arvo Paart, John Adams and others of the genre, a lot of emphasis was based on Steve Reich. Being his 70th birthday year, RTE took the opportunity to dedicate the entire festival to him. There were concerts, a seminar, a live interview and a “marathon concert” day.

On Sunday 19th February, I along with my dad, was going to hear two Reich pieces preformed live by Ensemble Modern and Synergy Vocals. Excited? What do you think?

We arrived at the National Concert Hall at about 19:00 to collect our tickets. Milling about in the foyer I got a chance to crowd-watch. They were a diverse group; middle aged couples with opera spectacles, young men in Moog t-shirts, new-age hippies, the very elderly and the relatively young. At about 19:40 the doors were opened and we were let in to the hall. No seats were reserved so we could choose where we sat. Now, I’ve been at the NCH before a number of times and in my experience, the best place to sit is up on the balcony overlooking the musicians to their left. From this vantage point you can see every member of the orchestra and exactly what they’re doing. It’s also the closest you can get to the stage. We took our seats and waited patiently. On the stage there were a number of chairs, four grand pianos and a double bass leaning on its side. There was a funny little incident when a youngish guy in a crumpled orange shirt tried to take a seat a few places away from where I was. An usherette promptly told him he wasn’t allowed to sit there. The man protested that he was part of the orchestra, but she wasn’t having any of it and he was ejected.

The musicians came on shortly after that, to great applause. I was half hoping Reich would conduct, but to my slight disappointment the conductor was female. (Sian Edwards, apparently.) The first piece they played was called “Variations (You Are)”. This piece uses 2 flutes, an oboe, an English horn, 3 b-flat clarinets, 4 pianos, 2 marimbas, 2 vibraphones, 3 violins, a double bass, a cello and 6 voices (3 soprano, 2 tenors, 1 alto). It lasts about 26 minutes. It was very interesting to watch as well as listen to, looking at all the different musicians. You could see the different personalities of them, like one of the pianists who was doing most of the playing was very intense. He would finish every chord sequence with an extravegent flourish of his hands and a nod to nobody in particular. The first violinist on the other hand was extremely relaxed and kept grinning at the cellist. One of the pianists looked like Truman Capote and a soprano was the image of Cheryl from Curb Your Enthusiasm!

When they finished and I was clapping away, my dad nudged me to alert my attention to something at the back of the hall. There, in the soundbooth was an elderly man in a baseball cap, standing up and cheering loudly. He was giving thumbs up and blowing kisses to the musicians on the stage. Steve Reich was in the building.

This was the interval and I went to stretch my legs and get a drink. As I was sipping my coke I was thinking about the next piece I was going to hear, the one I really came for, “Music for 18 Musicians”. I couldn’t wait, but I was also nervous. What if it wasn’t enjoyable, what if it didn’t transfer live, what if, what it? We returned to our seats shortly and noticed that the instruments had changed. I’m not taking about shifting a few cellos, the four grand pianos had completely changed position and there was the addition of a metallophone (a vibraphone without a motor) and a xylophone. I also noticed the lack of a conductor’s platform.

From where I was sitting I could clearly view one of the side doors through which the musicians would enter. A small group of them were huddled in the doorway, giggling and nudging each other. They seemed unsure of when to go onstage and kept jostling one other and joking around. At one point they seemed to be communicating with the musicians presumably huddled in the doorway opposite, underneath my seat. It was funny seeing these classically trained musicians acting like school kids. At one point the violinist gave the “wanker” sign to another musician, then burst out laughing. Finally, they decided to enter.The crowd cheered like mad.

“Music for 18 Musicians” is Reich’s seminal work, written between 1974 and 1976. Based on an 11 chord cycle, each individual chord is expanded into a longer piece, which finally returns to the original cycle to finish. Contrary to what the title implies, more than 18 musicians are often needed, as there is a lot of doubling-up required. At this performance there were 19 musicians on the stage. Not all of them were playing all the way through and at certain points people would swap their instruments, a tricky manoeuvre seeing as a continous sound flow was required. One of the musicians was, I was pleased to note, Mr Orange Shirt from before.

Without a conductor to set them off, the musicians had to just give each other a quick nod to start them. At once you’re plunged into this rhythmic, pulsating hum of a sound. In a word, magnificent. Hypnotic, soothing but at times uneasy. The actual musicians were fabulous, moving around the stage, playing various instruments, smiling and laughing at each other and never once loosing their place. At some points you’d hear a noise and it’d take a few minutes for you to figure out what instrument was possibly producing that sound. It lasts about 55 minutes, but that flew by incredibly quickly. It doesn’t end on any great crescendo or anything, so when they suddenly stopped playing there was a sort of bewildered silence. Nobody knew whether to clap or not. Suddenly, a deep, loud, clear voice said “Bravo.” At this, Reich’s helpful instruction that it was indeed over, the place went mental. A fervour unlike anything I’ve seen at a classical concert swept the audience off their feet and into a standing ovation as the man himself made his way up onto the stage. He didn’t say anything, only hugged every musician on the stage and smiled sheepishly at the audience. At this point he was about 3 feet below me. I wanted to yell, “Hey Steve!” or something, but thought better of it. I should have though, damn! After taking a few bows and with a final wave, he left.

It was fabulous, all in all. One of the best concerts I’ve been to in my life.

Part of my 17th birthday present was the Steve Reich boxset, Phases which includes all his major works, from Music For 18 Musicians, Different Trains and Come Out. I'll be listening to some of it before I drop off to sleep tonight, that's for sure. Last year when he turned 70, online music journal Pitchfork hosted a lengthy interview with him, which you can read here. I love reading interviews with Reich, he always seems to be completely down-to-earth and refreshingly unpretentious. Take, for example, his take on whether people need to understand the theory behind his work in order to enjoy it:
"I don't care how much people understand what it is that I'm doing, except if they're players in my ensemble or other ensembles [Laughs]. I just want people to be moved by the music. If you're not moved by the music, then everything else falls away. You're not interested in the text, you're not interested in how it was done, and you're not interested in interviewing the composer and all the rest of it. We're speaking together because you found something interesting that moved you emotionally, is my guess. Or we wouldn't be having this conversation. It's the part of music that's the hardest to talk about, and I don't spend much time talking about it. But it is the bottom line."

Finally, here's a quick video of Reich talking about his music and ethos, from earlier this year. Apparently he won the Polaris Music Prize? Who knew?

Happy birthday, Reich-man!


Damien Kelly said...

You SHOULD'VE known he'd won the music prize!!!!


We should go to something in the NCH sometime!

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