Radio Rewrite

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London Sinfonietta, Steve Reich

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Steve ReichAs three guitarists and a drummer chugged through the interlocking canons of Steve Reich’s 2x5 with their pre-recorded doubles, a vacant fug seemed to descend on the Royal Festival Hall. The rhythms were tight, the bass pulsing, a glassy, synthetic electric guitar sliced through the texture. Why did it feel so sterile? One almost longed for masterful bassist Enno Senft to miss a beat and the whole numerically perfect edifice to come crashing down around them.

The big premiere of the night was Radio Rewrite, in which Reich absorbed two Radiohead songs, Everything in its right place and Jigsaw Falling Into Place into a four-movement ensemble work. It all sounded so good on paper. Reich, having been ‘remixed’ himself by endless DJs and rock musicians, from Aphex Twin, Orb to Bowie, Mike Oldfield, Eno et al - was finally repaying the compliment. The hope was that the Radiohead elements would ignite something, or at least disturb something, in Reich’s creative process that would inspire him.

In fact, he neutralised them. The result was attractive and underwhelming – familiar, both in structure – the becalmed chords of the slow sections, and canonic faster movements – and scoring. Little separates the brooding, static minor tonality of Everything in its right place from a typical Reich slow movement, while fragments of Jigsaw Falling slotted satisfyingly into a pulsing stream in the fast sections, any of the song’s wild angst erased.

Reich’s rigour, his frankly terrifying discipline, is what makes his best music great. But it’s a rigour that can suffocate. What some of his best pieces share – The Desert Music, Drumming, The Cave, Tehillim, Different Trains, City Life, Come Out – is a disruptive ‘alien’ element, be it African music, poetry, documentary speech or sound. Radiohead’s music, perhaps, is ultimately too close to his own aesthetic.

That said, it’s one way of reaching out to the next generation, which is what the grand old master does so well: his avid audience spans at least three now. Coming on stage to do Clapping Music with percussionist David Hockings, he remains effortlessly cool, his razor-sharp mind never missing a beat, even if his ‘clap’ has quietened.

The highlight of the concert was Mats Bergström’s glittering performance of Electric Counterpoint. Playing the eleventh ‘live’ part over ten pre-recorded guitar tracks, he somehow managed to make us feel he was spontaneously creating this shimmering web in the moment, while controlling its multiple elements with elegant exactness. Its countrapuntal lines sparked off aural light showers, and the sound was carefully crafted.

That could not be said for the amplification in Double Sextet and Radio Rewrite, which was patchy and didn’t serve the London Sinfonietta string players well. They caught the dark urgency of Double Sextet, though in general there was insufficient energy coming from these seasoned experts. These works need to feel to be driven right to the edge.