20th century classics for a contemporary crowd...
Steve Reich

As a day of contemplative celebration simmers down to an audible hum of anticipation at London’s Southbank Centre, the complex’s The Rest Is Noise festival is handed proof that its yearlong crusade to turn the tides of indifference felt towards contemporary classical music has been a success.

Following the previous night’s Philip Glass performance, The Royal Festival Hall sees its second consecutive sell-out crowd flock inside from a picturesque winter evening, eager to witness a selection of Steve Reich’s (pictured) most ground-breaking compositions performed by the Colin Currie Group

The simplified brilliance of Reich’s 1972 composition ‘Clapping Music’ sets an immediate tone, offering unexpected captivation from two men clapping into microphones, essentially playing rhythmic catch-up with one another. The piece gathers complexity as each united passage breaks and crumbles into scattered noise. Applause erupts while Steve Reich and Colin Currie embrace and bow to an audience giddy with excitement. 

Originally written in 1966 as a civil rights piece, the disorientating ‘Come Out’ features two looped vocal samples slowly slipping out of harmony and descending into mechanised ambiance until eventually all recognisable voices merge into a single churn. It stands out as the most jarring and intense piece played this evening, especially when set against the wholly natural sound of ‘Clapping Music’.

The stage of the Royal Festival Hall is beautifully cluttered with instruments laid out for the headline performance of Reich’s mid-‘70s masterpiece ‘Music For 18 Musicians’. An interval is given before the big finale: a tense and nerve-racking experience, as if we’re a vast jury overseeing an important case. Some smoke cigarettes out in seizing winds biting the heels of tourists along the Thames, happily distracted by London’s illuminated skyline; others order a stiff drink or, for those broke enough to feel lucky to be here, tap water.

With everyone back to their seats, the Colin Currie Group stands ready to dive into the mismatched selection of instruments. Xylophones, bass clarinets and immaculately polished grand pianos create a hub of noise and activity when the piece floats into existence. First heard back in 1976, ‘Music For 18 Musicians’ is a master class in mesmeric composing, its pulsating breath freezing the audience’s excitement and calming it into the foetal position.

Female vocalists weave between precise melodies before the vibraphone, which acts as the piece’s composer, signals a change that ripples through the ranks. Throughout its hour running time, no rhythmic stone is left unturned, the piece eventually building to an intense climax of dizzying proportions.

An altered perception of contemporary classical music (not quite a revival, but more a stoking of the fires) is what this festival has spent a year working at achieving. Perhaps it would be over-dramatic to liken Philip Glass and Steve Reich to two Gandalf-like figures striding against the apathy and ignorance felt towards music they had a direct hand at shaping, but it’s true enough that the wildly experimental and progressive mentality which they practice is exactly what makes The Rest Is Noise festival a righteous cause.

- - -

Words: Charlie Wood

Find out about Clash’s latest in-print issue o’er here


Follow Clash: