Drumming: Reich's Rhythm Spirals

A review of 'Steve Reich at 80: Drumming' at the Barbican by George Howlett

City Life and Drumming are opposite poles of Steve Reich’s output. Composed 25 years apart, City Life’s evocation of bustling New York is punctuated by dissonant samples of sirens, traffic, and street sellers, whereas Drumming is a hypnotic and highly abstract exploration of a single rhythmic pattern, featuring no melodies, no key changes, no words, and no breaks.

The young Guildhall Musicians ensemble rose admirably to the demands of both works for Saturday’s Barbican performance. The program certainly presented particular challenges - City Life features MacBooks and samplers alongside woodwinds and strings, and Drumming‘s score does not specify set section lengths, meaning musicians must listen keenly to each other in order to fluidly transition. Subtle nods and glances directed a steady choreography of instrument switching, as Drumming’s patterns were passed seamlessly between bongos, vibraphones, glockenspiels, piccolos, and voices. A shimmering cloud of high overtones was patiently constructed and finely controlled by the ensemble - no mean feat for such an atypical grouping of instruments. The quick on-stage fixing of a barely noticeable technical glitch only added to City Life’s chaotic urban feel, and the occasional drumstick clash enhanced Drumming’s concentrated intensity.

Part of Reich’s direct appeal comes from his ability to create enormously intricate structures from basic building blocks, with Drumming‘s ‘phasing’ being one of several ideas used to do this. Like many great musical innovations, phasing is in essence very simple: a basic rhythmic pattern is layered up on multiple instruments, and played at subtly different speeds in order to gradually push it out of sync with itself. Imagine walking along with headphones on, and noticing that the beat of your footfall is slightly quicker than the one in your ears.

Many will have closed their eyes and visualised Drumming’s glistening rhythmic timbres as a set of shapes that shift around in the mind’s eye. Reich certainly sees things this way, speaking of his phased loops as ‘spirals’. A pattern that is repeated in a straightahead manner can be seen as moving around in a circular loop; however if two layers of the same pattern are phased (i.e. looped side-by-side so as to fall slightly out of sync with each other), then they cannot be seen as just one circle. Instead, they form two subtly distinct rotations, moving at different speeds and gradually becoming further away from each other - as if the diverging pattern is spiralling out from the original loop (see and hear it).

Ideas such as this allow Drumming to draw extraordinary hypnotic power from simple elements. Abrupt drums, sparkling vibraphones, and wordless voices combine and unravel as they phase around each other, alternately pushing different textures through your auditory spotlight even as the basic patterns remain unchanged. The Guildhall musicians’ keen awareness of each other gave shape and life to this aspect of the music with a richness only possible in the superb acoustics of a venue such as Milton Court. It is a testament to both performance and setting that the elaboration of just one rhythmic phrase could completely entrance an audience for well over an hour. This extended examination of a single musical shape gave the piece a non-narrative feel, as if walking around a sculpture as it is illuminated by different lights and shadows, rather than experiencing the events of a more sequential storyline.

The concert was brought to a poignant close as the young ensemble peered to the back of the hall and spotted the trademark baseball cap of Steve Reich, as he smiled at them through the standing ovation. More than a half-century after its inception, minimalism’s power to attract and captivate an audience of all ages remains undiminished.

George Howlett


Reich: City Life (1995) – arr. wind ensemble by Anthony Fiumara

Reich: Drumming (1970-1)


Guildhall Musicians: Simon Wills (conductor)

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