Monday, 16 September 2013

STEVE REICH'S DRUMMING / Roberto Alvarez and Friends / Review

Roberto Alvarez & Friends
Esplanade Recital Sudio
Friday (13 September 2013)

An edited version of this review was published in The Straits Times on 16 September 2013 with the title "Drumming up interest".

You haven’t quite lived if you have not witnessed a performance of Steve Reich’s Drumming. Not even the famous recording by Steve Reich and Musicians on Deutsche Grammophon quite captures the experience of being there as his 75-minute treatise on minimalism unfolds before your eyes and ears.

Thanks to Esplanade’s Spectrum Series of new music concerts, this performance by nine percussionists and two singers led by SSO flautist and piccolo player Roberto Alvarez (left) became a reality. Before the drumming began, the soft-spoken and unassuming Spaniard spoke briefly about minimalism and its long stretches of repeated notes, and how phases take place when one beat quickens relative to another to produce a desynchronisation, and how the two separate beats meet up again with the passage of time. He demonstrated this with two electronic metronomes. Without letting the cat out the bag, the music began.

The iconic American minimalist Reich formed his ideas of the work following a curtailed trip (due to malaria) to Ghana in 1970, but ultimately Drumming draws its inspiration not just from Africa but also cultures of Asia and Europe. It began simply with one percussionist, the veteran Lim Meng Keh, beating out a rhythm on a bongo drum. He is joined by another who creates another rhythm, and yet another until the all the bongos are occupied. It is a beehive of buzzing activity, that sounds ever more complex, although still based on simple repetitive rhythms, but multiplied manifold. The work is in four parts, performed continuous and without break, but one knows when the new part comes on because the focus now shifts to the marimbas.

While the unpitched bongos sound sort of primitive, the more mellow and pitched marimbas resound like distant carillons of church bells. At one point, all nine percussionists converge on three marimbas. Then come the voices of Lim Yan Ting and Thomas Manhart, which are wordless chirped tones in yet another set of rhythms. These sound otherworldly, gradually arriving and then receding as their microphones are drawn nearer and then gently held away. Finally Roberto Alvarez joins in the fray by whistling and then blowing high-pitched blasts on the piccolo.

The third part involves the glockenspiels, with their tinkling metallic timbres, like miniature celestial gamelans. There is a Christmassy feel, but not all of a sudden as these come like the change of the seasons, gradually but inexorably. Each of these parts last between 15 to 20 minutes on an average, but this is not a work for clock-watchers. Time passes ever some imperceptibly when one is transfixed on what is going on, and I can only add that the audience of 200 or so was very quiet and attentive throughout the entire duration of the performance. There are points where I close my eyes and allow the music to drift by, and when I open them again, a different configuration of performers and instruments come to bear. It is a gradual metamorphosis of tone, timbre and rhythm through time, the essence of minimalism itself, which makes this work interesting. 

We know we are into the fourth and final part when all three groups of percussion instruments are being played simultaneously, and joined by the voices and piccolo. It begins simply enough but builds up into a grand apotheosis of sorts. The ensemble is now in full swing and the sound is plethoric and plangent. All three timbres of percussion are discernible, but together there is an unspoken unity that is almost orchestral in nature. I like to imagine this to be the world orchestra of the 12th millennium B.C., a meeting of hunter gatherers and their assortment of (mostly percussion) musical instruments. If they are not warring, they are making music together. The music rises to a sharp crescendo, and it ends abruptly in one accord to a storm of applause.

This is likely to be the Singapore Premiere of Drumming, and would have been a proud entrant in any edition of the Singapore Arts Festival. This could not have been possible ten years ago simply because there weren’t so many professional percussionists in Singapore during those days. For the record, the nine excellent percussionists were Lim Meng Keh, Bai Jiaxing, Cheryl Ong, Daniel Ho, Eugene Toh, Marvin Seah, Ramu Thiruyanam, Sng Yiang Shan and Tan Lee Ying.

We are now living in an embarrassment of riches, which explains the diversity of new works that can be presented in concert and performed at a high level. The audience is still small but can be seen growing at a steady pace. Education and careful nurturing is the key and no organisation does it better than Esplanade. Long may that continue.   

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