Oli Freke

Tech House / Techno / House

Steve Reich, ‘Drumming’

Review of Steve Reich’s, ‘’Drumming’
Colin Currie Ensemble, Queen Elizabeth Hall.
Tuesday 16th February, 2010.

Still great after 39 years.

This is the second time I’ve seen Steve Reich’s, ”Drumming’; last time was about 15 years ago at the Royal Festival Hall. I still remember how the drums were arranged in a semi circle and how one of the guys dropped a stick during one of the complex sections and kept playing with one hand as he picked it up. I’m still impressed to this day.

This performance was just as exciting even though no sticks went astray. From the first assertive pulse of the opening drum, this was an assured and polished performance by Colin Currie’s 12 strong ensemble. All musicians obviously having fun and the overall effect electrifying.

What I had completely forgotten about the piece is the pyscho-acoustic level of the work. The musical aspects are fascinating and deep in their own right – the divisions of the 12/8 bar with the pulse shifting from groups of two, three, four and six, and the phase shifts familiar from works like Piano Phase. But what really surprised me was how the ear and brain deals with sound that is highly repetitive: you get into that sound, you can almost analyse the sound mathematically as you pull apart the layers of the sound and examine each in detail.

The first layer of sound is the surface of the music – you can hear music being played by musicians, and very accessible and exciting it is too. But after a while you notice the second layer of the constituent parts of each note as they happen: you can hone in on the beater strike on the drum skin (and marimba and xylophone later): skin produce a solid thud, marimba a sharper higher transient, and xylophone a metallic fizz.

Then you can choose to listen to the resonant part of each note following the beater strike. A kind of slow attack synth note that defines the pitch and timbre of the instrument.

And then finally – and this is where things can get a bit weird – you can listen to the reverb of each note in the hall. Or rather not each note, but the sum of sound in the hall, a kind of evolving wash from low to high frequency that fills in the gaps left by the beater and note resonances.

You notice that it has a kind of natural compression effect in the ear – when a note is played the reverb disappears, but within the gaps in time and frequency, the reverb zooms back into focus, and then disappears again instantly after a new note has been played. Focus on this stuff, fading in an out, like the over-used side-chain compression in dance music (think Justice) and you begin to hear some very peculiar things going on.

For example, during the early marimba phase of Part II, a sub-bass tone could be heard in the reverb. None of the notes were low enough to generate sub-bass, so it must have been a function of closely pitched beat frequencies? Ear canal sound wave compression? Who knows. It was very bizarre.

One was also able to notice a tangible and crunchy ring modulation effect when two or more xylophone notes were played simultaneously – what can only be considered to be analague frequency modulation, a contradiction in terms. The frequencies being added and subtracted in real time in the room, rather than in digital maths in a Yamaha DX7.

So, the acoustics of this piece are as easily important as the music – I haven’t even talked yet about how the 12/8 rhythm used is based on the same one that Brazilians and African use for their rhythm based music. And how this isn’t a mere copying of African tribal music, but a genuinely new music based on rhythm.

The pyscho-acoustic nature is proved in part three where singers and picolo pick up ‘virtual melodies’ created by the fast repetitive patterns and turn them into reality by playing or singing them.

Blah blah blah, this is all just words…you need to go and have a listen to it yourself!

Oh, and by the way, Steve Reich himself was at this performance and in the post concert talk said it was the first time he’d experienced it as a member of the audience, and that it had moved him to tears. In a good way!