Proms 2011: Steve Reich proves mesmeric

Nick Shave allows himself to be swept up in Reich's unique soundworld

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The Proms’s one-off celebration of his 75th birthday isn’t enough: isn’t it time Steve Reich set up a permanent sound installation – a round-the-clock drop-in centre in which his music plays on loop? The weird acoustics and slightly surreal theatrical spaces of the Royal Albert Hall would, I think, make an ideal space for his more trippy works. Spectators could come and go, escape from the city – drop in, get their fix. The musicians on stage could take it in turns – as they do – playing the instruments in shifts. His music could continue in one never-ending flow. Utopia. You dig?

Reich’s music does weird things to your head, and there were spacey moments in the Royal Albert Hall last night when it felt as though he might actually be realising this ’60s vision of eternal theatre: his Music for 18 Musicians (1974-6) is a seemingly endless, hypnotic, pulsing flow of repeated motifs shared between pianos, mallet instruments (marimbas, xylophones and vibraphone), cello, violin, percussion, voices and clarinets. It’s not minimalism. Rather, rhythms dance, textures undulate, harmonies surge, as musicians perform a variety of repeated ideas that together make up a considerable whole.

Of course, Reich’s utopia is far from egalitarian. Divided into distinct sections, his score demands every player perform their repetitive tasks like cogs in a machine (you can not only hear, but see how this music initially grew out of Reich’s experiments with tape loops, phasing in and out with one another). As composer, Reich is in full control. Last night, the members of the Ensemble Modern came and went on stage, appearing to share their responsibilities like a community of happy helpers, locked in time under autocratic rule. But they were expressive too: the clarinetist swayed to the music, shoulders dancing to its syncopations.

And as the audience, we too were required to submit to the music’s control. Earlier in the evening, we had limbered up for the hour-long pulsing journey with Clapping Music (1972), in which Reich and Rainer Römer’s phasing claps produced crazy echoes around the Royal Albert Hall, highlighting the minimalist maxim that maximum effects can come from minimal means. And Swedish guitarist Mats Bergström performed Electric Counterpoint (1987), which took me back to The Orb’s Adventures Beyond the Underworld, which samples Reich’s ambient guitar themes.

Interestingly, it wasn’t the minimalist clapping that proved the challenge, but its outgrowth for 18 Musicians. A handful of spectators couldn’t hack it and left as the hour wore on (it was hard not to notice the guy next to me checking his watch, shining a torch on the time so he could read it through his dark glasses). Others succumbed to Reich’s dancing rhythms, swaying gently under their spell.

But those who stayed for the full duration – and in the absence of teleology, the piece does weird things to time – were rewarded with a disciplined realisation of that spell-binding soundworld that Reich, like no other, inhabits.

Prom 36: Steve Reich: Clapping Music, Electric Counterpoint, Music for 18 Musicians
Ensemble Modern, Synergy Vocals, Steve Reich (perc, pno)

Nick Shave writes for The Guardian and is contributing editor of BBC Music Magazine. A regular reviewer and blogger of the Proms, he can usually be found at the Royal Albert Hall with only seconds to spare, breaking into an ungainly powerwalk somewhere between the ticket collection desk and the stalls