Monday April 10, 2006

New World Symphony does Reich

Cookin:' Part IV

The New World Symphony’s performnace of Steve Reich‘s Drumming on Saturday was pretty mind-bending. Exploring the same themes that occupied Reich’s entire career, the piece is built up from simple rhythmic motifs which grow increasingly complex through layering, variation, and “phasing.” The later technique is particularly key – it involves a repeating pattern played by two musicians, whom gradually fall out of sync with each other (one playing just slightly faster), then back into sync (when the “faster” variation gets a full eight-note ahead of the other). The effect is maddeningly complex when done by two musicians, let alone 13. Drumming opens up on four pairs of tuned bongos, moves to marimbas for the second section, to glockenspiels for the third, and finishes with all the instruments playing together. At various points, vocalists, a piccolo, and whistling augment the percussion. All of the action of the piece takes place in a very limited frequency range, and often with incredible density of notes, which result in overtones and perceived sounds that cannot be coming from the actual instruments. The piece also challenges you to “follow the pattern,” knowing full well that the variations will grown too complex by several orders of magnitude for that to be possible — at one particularly hot moment, there are nine musicians playing different patterns on the marimbas. Think of future robots playing patty-cake, fractal/chaos theory, and the game simon, but mostly nevermind: you just have to listen to it from beginning to end to get it.

What I’m trying to say is that this shit is weird. And that gets me to how cool the New World Symphony is for doing it (and doing it well: the performance was easily as good as the one one my box cd.) And getting people to come hear it: the 704-seat theater was maybe 90% full. I was skeptical of combining a show like this with a 90-minute cocktail reception (“Symphony with a Twist,” indeed), but the proof is in the pudding: no more then one person left during the performance, and most of the crowd cheered furiously at the end (from the balcony, I saw a few people sitting with arms folded across their chest throughout the standing ovation, but that’s less then I’d have expected). Before the show, Michael Linville came out and explained the basic concepts of the piece (with a quick demonstration by a couple of the musicians) to give the audience a little background, but mostly they were just thrown in the deep end. So we have another case of NWS doing uncompromising work, and getting people to hear it. Bravo!

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  1. KH    Mon Apr 10, 12:53 PM #  

    That sounds excellent! I would have loved to have been able to go.

  2. mkh    Mon Apr 10, 02:15 PM #  

    Thanks for saving me the trouble of writing my own review. I agree with you completely—it was a spectacular performance!

    Oh, and the post-performance q&a was fascinating. Some of the questions from the audience were—odd—but there was a surprising level of insight there, too.

    More than one person walked out, though the number was still less than 10. (I was seated upstairs, and their movement distratced me.) Oh, and the way the audience jumped right into applause when it almost ended was understandable, I guess, but still, I really wanted to see how long the musicians would let those overtones hang in the air before lowering their arms.