The concert I went to see was ‘Drumming’ composed by ‘Steve Reich’ and performed by ‘The Colin Currie Percussion Group’. It was most definitely not what I was expecting but it was a pleasant surprise and I learnt a completely new style of composing using percussion and rhythm as the main focus of the piece.
Before the concert, we went to the pre-concert talk held in the town hall. Colin Currie was interviewed by another man and through their discussion I learnt a lot about the music and the composer I would be listening to. Steve Reich sounds like an extraordinary man who wants to do something ‘different’ with music. They said that in his scores, he often writes the positioning of where each instrument must be which seems to me extremely strange but I can understand that he may feel that the sounds echo differently if in different places. He is a minimalist writer and although I had heard of this style from a composition workshop last year, actually hearing it and experiencing its magic was something completely different.
Colin Currie explained to us the concept of phasing and the way which it takes the same rhythm and moves it so it is ‘out of time’ with the original. These two patterns continue phasing until they come back together again. This is the main driving force behind minimalism and I found it strangely hypnotic.
In the pre-concert talk, they played us two pieces: ‘piano phase’ followed by ‘its gonna rain’. When the piano phase started I really did not know what to expect. I tried tapping my foot to the beat, but I simply couldn’t find it. I also knew that there were two pianos but I could only hear one. As the piece went on, some of the higher notes began to stand out more to me until I could hear a sort of unintentional melody. I noticed that the time interval between these two notes changed over time as the pianos ‘phased’. It was so different to anything else and the phasing made it really hard to find a ‘downbeat’. The second piece they played us was ‘Its gonna rain’. This was from voices which Steve Reich recorded in the street. It was unbelievable. The piece was chopped up and looped so much it sounded completely different and other words seemed to be emerging even though the only words put in were ‘Its gonna rain’!
But onto the actual performance, it was split into 4 parts but with no pauses in-between, each flowed seamlessly into the next. The first part was Bongo drums. It started with a few beats with regular intervals played all together. Slowly, more beats were added until a whole bar rhythm was there. Then they started phasing in and out and although it was like a mess, it was a beautiful mess which seemed to have direction. It was amazing how they managed to play ‘in time’ when the whole style of music seemed ‘out of time’. The echoes of the bongo drums seemed to create their own melody like two 2 notes humming one after the other. It was spooky and amazing. Occasionally, the two drummers at the back stopped then came back in again to give it a bit more variation. Every time a new part was added, I could pick it up and hear it really well, then it seemed to fade into the music as a whole and I couldn’t identify it anymore. It was really strange but magical. The volume rose and fell and it seemed like there was a lot more than just 3 people! Halfway through, they each turned their sticks around so they had a different drum stick head, this gave it a more deep mellow sound and changed the feel completely. There were lots of similar gradual changes, nothing was sudden and it all really flowed together.
Then slowly, the marimbas joined in. They copied the drummers rhythms at a soft volume then slowly crescendo as the drums decrescendo so that the marimbas took over until the drums stopped. Although it was still the same 1 bar rhythm right from the start phased and changed, the feel was completely different. It was like a forest with dripping water which slowly changed until the rhythm was much simpler than the complicated phased one which the drummers had been doing. Then more people joined in higher up on the marimba introducing new melodies. The vocals were not at all like conventional vocals. They imitated the instruments and faded in and out of the spooky melody by moving their microphones closer or further from their mouth. They highlighted certain tunes played by the marimbas and after they had sung one of the tunes, it seemed to echo in my head and I could still hear it even when they had stopped singing. It was really strange and I think it was because there was someone playing it on the marimba but I couldn’t pick out that part of the music until the singer highlighted it for us. At one point I felt like I could hear a trumpet as the singers made such strange sounds! The composer allegedly said he could hear a woman’s voice in the marimbas so that’s why he wrote for the marimbas and the female voice together. After hearing the music, I understood what he meant!
Eventually the low melodies on the marimbas faded out until only the high parts remained. These then faded into the glockenspiels high ringing voice. The glockenspiel was like an echo inside my head between my ears. It was extremely piercing and at some points it even hurt. I saw one lady covering her ears, it was probably too much for her for the volume and pitch was almost painful! The echoes from the glockenspiel created their own melody different from what they were playing just like the drums had done. All these countermelodies made it interesting and hypnotic to listen to. The glockenspiels then slowly phased and moved the melodies even higher. It was like wind-chimes, birds and clouds and stars. The music seemed really alive and I could hear birds singing. Then I realised the birds were in fact the singers whistling!
One simpler melody slowly seemed to stand out to me but then more parts joined in and the whole thing seemed to blur together again. At one point the women’s whistling reminded me of the Pirates of the Caribbean, with the birds and a tropical sea feel. It also made me imagine light shining down through leaves up high above in the forest. The music really painted colours and images in my mind unlike anything I’ve ever listened to before.
Slowly, the parts dropped out until it was only regular beats on the glockenspiel played an octave apart, then all the other instruments joined in with this same beat. This was the beginning of part 4. The marimba would introduce a new beat to the rhythm and the other instruments would copy him. Then they began phasing again into a beautiful mess. It was interesting watching the performers as they had no conductor so they had to watch each other carefully to see when to play and to keep in time. I think that it must be so hard to come in after ‘dropping out’ for a while as all of the phasing makes it hard to see when a bar begins and when you should begin playing. These musicians are so skilled!
Towards the end of this section, the music seemed to become really urgent and slightly scary. It was pushing forwards and made me feel like I was running away from something really horrible. The volume rose and it seemed really panicked. I heard the high whistling voices again. There was so much going on within the piece.
Then one of the two female singers walked up to the front and began to wave her arms like she was conducting. I was very confused as I had been told there was not going to be a conductor. The she suddenly put her hand in the air and closed her fist. The music immediately stopped. It was such a shock and a huge, impressive ending as throughout the 60 minutes, there had not been one moment of silence and every change had happened gradually. This sudden, unexpected end made it really breathtaking and I loved it.
I would definitely recommend a Steve Reich concert to anyone. It is completely different from anything you will have ever heard and although you may not like it at first, you have to let the music wash over you and you will feel its magic. It really inspired me to do percussion and showed me how versatile the instruments are. It also really impressed me about how a simple rhythm can create such an amazing piece with the technique of phasing. I loved the concert!
Natasha Wilson, aged 15
The Colin Currie Group, Percussion
Concert Hall Reading
Sunday 12th June 2011