sun 16/06/2024

Radio Rewrite, Royal Festival Hall: The Classical Review | reviews, news & interviews

Radio Rewrite, Royal Festival Hall: The Classical Review

Radio Rewrite, Royal Festival Hall: The Classical Review

Reich's homage to Radiohead is an attractive new work

Steve Reich: his music never takes itself seriously enough for wrong turns to irritate

Minimalism was born of popular music. The drones came from John Coltrane, the tape experiments from fiddling around with songs from the charts, the first rhythmic and melodic explorations from the folk music of Africa and Asia. And all the pioneers started their careers as jazzers (La Monte Young and Terry Jennings were saxophonists, Terry Riley a ragtime pianist, Steve Reich a drummer).

So, what was strange about last night’s Reich world premiere, which used two short pieces by Radiohead as the basis for a new five-movement composition, was that it’s taken this long for Reich to return to Western popular music for inspiration.

Previous homages have been to the likes of 12th-century composer Perotin and Stephen Sondheim. African popular music has been the only constant thread. This was most audible in Electric Counterpoint, which uses a bright, jerky Central African melody for the electric guitar’s first series of canons and chopped-up versions for the succeeding movements. It was witnessing a notable performance of this work by Jonny Greenwood in Krakow in 2011 that first led Reich to consider collaborating with the band.

The music never takes itself seriously enough for wrong turns to irritate

Last night’s rendition from Mats Bergstrom was a stunner itself. The technical complexities of this work's balancing act – in which a guitarist must pre-record up to 12 separate lines of music, offering up a 13th strand for live consumption – were subsumed within a supremely sexy performance, in which the gentle ricocheting against the backing track built up its dense but legible groove with a ravishing beauty of tone and elegance of phrasing.

The organic flow of this piece stood out next to 2 x 5, a stiff and perverse composition for rock ensemble. Even here, though, with Reich at his most academic and unsure-footed, one felt able to give the piece a second and third and fourth chance. The music never takes itself seriously enough for wrong turns to irritate. Chord changes are deliberately lacking in grace. Build ups deliberately end abruptly. Moods deliberately turn on a whim. All this, too, is born of the rough and readiness of popular music-making. 

So to Radio Rewrite. Radiohead aficionados would have been satisified. This wasn’t a hidden homage. The melodies and harmonies of Everything in its Right Place and Jigsaw Falling were very audible, even when stretched and distorted. And they fused well with Reich’s convulsive syncopations – unsurprisingly in the case of Jigsaw Falling with its Reichian intro. What was interesting, however, was how the unfamiliar harmonies that Reich is forced to play with liberates him to explore a more dramatic palette. In the two slow movements, he revels in the dissonances thrown up by Everything in its Right Place, encouraging them to assume a Jewish cantor-like wail through woodwind colouring.

So, a good piece. But following it was a great piece, the Double Sextet, that journeys far and wide through lovely jangly material. It's a pity the London Sinfonietta lacked the energy and precision to fully bring across the work's dynamic drive, even with Brad Lubman's enthusiastic conducting. Still, Reich seemed happy. There were several chances to give praise to the great man. He appeared on stage at the start of the concert with another legend, London Sinfonietta principal percussionist David Hockings, for a peformance of Clapping Music. Reich wasn’t too hot at this - his hands weren't cupped right to clap - and several pockets of the audience entered into their own rendition in the down time between works to show him how it’s done. 

Radiohead's melodies and harmonies fused well with Reich’s convulsive syncopations


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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