Minimal: American Classics

This section of my blog includes ‘extracurricular’ research; concerts I have been to and recordings I have listened to outside the specific remit of the OCA course material.  I thought I would kick it off with a concert I went to last night, performed by the Bingham Quartet and entitled ‘Minimal: American Classics’.

The programme included an unusual Mozart piece – his Adagio and Fugue, K546, as well as the dramatic and in places rather frenetic Kreutzer Sonata by Leos Janacek.  But what I particularly wanted to reflect on is the minimalist section of the programme, featuring composers Philip Glass and Steve Reich.

The Philip Glass piece, ‘Company’, is a four movement quartet written in 1983 for a play adaptation of Samuel Beckett’s novella.  Glass’s minimalist style was instantly recognisable with its repetitive patterns; I can imagine it working well in the context of setting the mood for a play, but I wouldn’t rush out to listen to it again.  Wikipedia describes it as ‘monochrome’, which I think is a good adjective for my own feelings about the piece and his style more generally.

The next piece was inspired by Steve Reich’s short composition ‘Clapping music’.  In the original work, two performers clap an identical 12 beat rhythm: at the beginning they are in unison and then gradually one of them slips first one beat behind, then two, then three etc. until they complete the circle and come back to unison again.  The first violinist of the quartet, Steve Bingham, set this to notes and played both parts on electric violin using live-looping – very impressive!  I really like the way that as the phasing between the two parts changes, you hear a different part of the rhythm / melody in the spotlight.  There is an interesting sort of ‘messy’ effect when the rhythms are very close together in phase, towards the beginning and end of the piece; I wonder if this is the technique Reich used in ‘Drumming’ to get the effect I described earlier in my research on rhythm?

The final performance was the one I was most curious to hear: Steve Reich’s ‘Different Trains’ .  I wasn’t disappointed.  It was inspired by Reich’s childhood train journeys between New York and Los Angeles during the years 1939-1942, and the Holocaust that was starting to happen at that time in Europe.  He recorded conversations with people reminiscing that period of their life as well as train sounds and other effects, and incorporated extracts into a tape recording which became the basis for a piece of music.  Three string quartet parts were written and added to the tape recording, and the final string quartet part was written to be added as a live performance.

The result is quite epic.  The beginning of the piece is about the train journeys in America before the war: the ostinato patterns very clearly convey the sound of a train, and the cello mimics the train whistle with a note high up on the A string.  At first I found the incorporation of the speech patterns a bit gimmicky and pointless, but as the piece progressed through time towards the start of the war I found myself changing my mind.  The tension in the music builds up rapidly while the speakers are saying the names of the years: 1939, 1940 and then 1941; the effect would have been lost without the cue from the speech.  Then the music takes on a much darker colour as the speakers start to say phrases such as:

‘Germans invaded Hungary’

‘and he said “Don’t breathe!”‘,

‘Flames going up to the sky -it was smoking’

The music was mixed in with the sound of air raid sirens, and at times the strings sounded very much like humans screaming – it was quite a spine tingling effect, as testified by the little girl sitting opposite me who was clinging on to her dad and looking quite terrified.

Very unusual, very clever and in places very beautiful.


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