Live Review: Reverberations at the Barbican

Reverberations: The Influence of Steve Reich

Session 3, Sat 7th May, 6pm + Session 6, Sun 8th May, 6pm

The ‘marathon weekend’ is a concept that, I would suspect, a lot of London concert-goers aren’t familiar with. Last weekend’s Reich-branded festival featured over 24 hours of music (including time for stage re-arrangements), spread across two venues and packed into a very tight time-frame. This concert format is a far more familiar domain for the event’s honorary compères (and co-curators?) – Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon and David Lang, the Bang on a Can crew. Their own (free) Marathon concerts are an annual occurrence in New York, whilst another (free) New York marathon concert opened this year’s Ecstatic Music Festival, which featured many of the other acts who would then appear on the Barbican’s programme. The event’s liberal approach to genre meant that it came to closely resemble the kind of line-ups boasted by these festivals. It was particularly fitting that the Bang on a Can ‘post-minimalists’ had such a central role in the event, since – for all the constant recourse to Reich – the key nodal point which joins most of the music here could be situated at a small distance from Reich’s own work, at the point where rock music and Eno-inspired ambient music engage in their most respectful dialogue with a particular school of Reich devotees.


I make this point because I think this was more than a Reich tribute event, even while the many heartfelt speeches and ovations for the man himself suggested that the organisers clearly believed in the gesture as a thematic thread. The event was a showcase of a particular moment of cross-genre concordance, a moment which we’re still right at the heart of. I wouldn’t say that anything I heard last weekend felt out of place, and it was the reference to Reich which surely guaranteed the large audiences that they pulled in, but the significance of the festival should be viewed as more than just the planned coming-together of a number of scattered acts linked only by their shared reverence for one composer.

To make a case in point, the Reich pieces were still the most avant-garde (or ‘avant-garde-sounding’) of the music that I heard, except perhaps for the aleatoric ‘fizzy-drink music’ episode in Dan Deacon‘s Ghostbuster Cook: Origin of the Riddler. The pop elements which have informed the Bang on a Can composers tend to bring a stronger sense of tonality and of metre to their work, while many of the pop artists (notably Bryce Dessner) have taken from Reich mainly through ambient music with ‘classically-inspired’ instrumentation and textures, or from the predominance of minimalist structures in film soundtracks. In the end, the differing expectations that could be drawn from the title of the festival created quite a divided audience,  yet in a way the structure of the event successfully pre-empted this.


It might be a result of such poly-genre performances being routine at Bang on a Can, but the Marathon – which resembles more a pop festival than any classical festival I’ve been to – specifically allows for picky audiences. When David Lang announced at the beginning of the Saturday evening concert that audience members should feel free to come and go as they please and not feel obliged to sit patiently through the entire evening’s set, I thought he was just being refreshingly informal. By attending every piece though, I found myself sitting through nearly 12 hours of music that weekend; the event really required a new attitude, suited to a heterogenous audience, of feeling comfortable picking and choosing between ensembles, not feeling formally obliged to engage with the entire line-up (a weekend wristband option, which would have been conceivable, would have encouraged this attitude even more). In the end, there were few who stayed to the end of either night (I didn’t, needing to get the last train home in both cases), and while I was intrigued and excited by the absence of assumed concert decorum necessitated by such a set-up, I could feel that some accepted the format easier than others. (And as in all these cases, those who came to support certain pop acts seemed much more comfortable with the idea of sitting through other slots, or taking a break, than those specifically there for Reich and Reich sound-a-likes, who in some cases made out like their time was being wasted. But that’s the core classical audience for you, this blog is not for them.)

I actually think that the Barbican Hall is perhaps too large a venue for what became such an unusual, informal show. It would have been good to get nearer the stage on occasion (we were in the circle), maybe to stand a bit – the few events put on in the outside foyer were extremely successful and more could have been made of this second performance space. The staging changes, especially on Saturday, were too many and too long for much of the audience – it required quite a serious exchange of concert expectations to just ‘go with the flow’. However, I would say that I was struck by the audacity of the ‘Marathon’ and its possibilities – as a format it renders arbitrary concert formalities all but impossible, it places the music above everything else, and it allows the programming of things which might not seem universally accessible to be put on without ‘forcing’ an audience to sit through them (especially if these items are placed at the end). And one view would be that, if you’re going to put on a festival, it may as well be as big a festival as possible, and then people can take it or leave it as they like.


I was a sucker for it all. The Reich pieces which formed the backbone of the programme were well chosen to represent each of his different musical characters, and they were exceptionally performed, my personal favourite being the Double Sextet rendered live by eighth blackbird and members of the Bang on a Can All-Stars. Of the Bang on a Can composers’ works, Gordon‘s fantastic Rewriting Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony was something like the apotheosis of the kind of ‘remix’ piece that I’ve discussed with reference to Alarm Will Sound. Fragments of each Beethoven movement were rewired into an epic, episodic ambient track, evoking heavy reverb effects and dense echo chambers, all rendered through very convincing textural writing. Wolfe‘s LAD – for bagpipes and loops – was a revelation, a thrilling piece of process music in which the pealing of the pipes was bent into webs, their timbre more intense and penetrating than the shrillest of synth leads.

My highlights of the weekend were the two pop cycles – Owen Pallett’s Heartland and Tyondai Braxton’s Central Market. Heartland happens to be my favourite album of 2010, and I would have forded rivers of fire to see him perform it with orchestra in any context. His arrangement of the album for the Britten Sinfonia was more of a concerto for singer-violinist than an integrated orchestral song cycle, Pallett in no way compromising the work’s pop identity to what could have been the temptations of a ‘classical’ presentation. Unsurprisingly, tracks like ‘E Is For Estranged’ and ‘Lewis Takes Off His Shirt’ had me short of breath – but I wouldn’t advocate Pallett as anything other than an incredibly resourceful and perceptive pop musician.

WATCH a video of Owen Pallett’s ‘The Great Elsewhere’ HERE

Braxton however, whose orchestral work I wasn’t previously familiar with, comes much closer to the New York composers’ brand of amplified concert music, although his close proximity to pop and its moods gave his pieces a topical freedom that was far less evident in the other orchestral works presented. His musical character, Stravinskian yet deeply indebted to modern avant-garde pop, is the kind that shows up what a narrow attitude towards ‘humour’ and ‘levity’ classical composers can have. Classical fans are quick to scoff at the idea that classical music is largely humourless – normally by proudly pronouncing the word ‘Haydn’ – and obviously it’s not entirely humourless, but it’s far more guarded and sceptical towards lightness than pop in practice. Works are often considered as ‘either/or’, or else the humourous features are quickly brushed over to indicate the ‘real soul’ beneath. Pop music doesn’t suffer from these tendencies, and by bringing this attitude to his complex and outrageous chamber music, Braxton begins to show some of the ways in which music can ‘mean’ genuinely and uniquely while avoiding ‘seriousness’ or even ‘sincerity’. As in his ex-bandmates’ most famous export – ‘Atlas’ – the key topic in Central Market is a kind of cartoon march. Larger than life ideas ride on top of each other, derailed by helium-voiced fanfares and robotic birdcalls. Like Alarm Will Sound‘s Aphex arrangements, it has the joyful strangeness of music written by a capable and imaginative orchestrator who nevertheless feels no need to prove his ‘classical’ roots or templates. If this work hasn’t been choreographed, it needs to be very soon, in a small space with bright colours. It could be the new Petrushka.

LISTEN to various tracks from Central Market (and buy the CD) -> HERE


While Braxton’s and Pallett’s music feels naturally at home with the NY set, their links to Reich seem fairly tenuous, beyond the way that all arty pop continues to commune with new tonal art music. The best aspects of their work have little to do with the best aspects of Reich’s. Lang went some way to widen the discourse around Reich’s influence into an attitude – practical rather than musical – of producing your own music in your own way, feeling at home with the possibilities of amplification and playing in new venues, amongst other things, which is all very relevant. Perhaps it is this attitude more than anything else that united what could otherwise have been a festival of minimalism and electronic process music, although I suppose they had to be careful, in exploring Reich’s influence, not to rely too much on anyone influenced equally by Glass or Riley or Adams or Young. I would actually go so far as to say that some of the pop acts represented, and those performing under a kind of ‘ambient classical’ label – such as Max Richter and Johann Johansson – could afford to take more influence from Reich, especially in his exploration of harmony and structure.

The best possible result of such a weekend would be that fans of the more pop-oriented groups were turned on to some of Reich’s more complex and avant-garde ideas, as well as the work of the Bang on a Can group, as a kind of stepping stone towards an interest in the harmonic, structural and topical ideas of other similar composers (since very little of Reich’s ecstatic or panic-stricken music risks the kind of ‘pretty’ banality that some of the younger acts occasionally approach). Overall though, in its pitch, the event struck at the kind of healthy, genre-free, ‘it’s-all-about-the-music’ attitude which characterises the New York scene, while still managing to challenge an audience with any kind of pre-formed expectations. Such an attitude is not always appropriate – for one thing, it can suggest a disregard for any kind of socio-cultural context as irrelevant, plus it isn’t exactly the most ‘theatrical’ of attitudes – but, as Lang said, it demonstrates a specifically Reichian inheritance, perhaps the most important in the unification of the particular cultural moment being showcased.

Visit the festival’s microsite HERE (it has a lil player with many musical samples)


This entry was posted in chamber, festival, live review, orchestral. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Live Review: Reverberations at the Barbican

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