Steve Reich’s Sextet, Clapping Music and Music for Pieces of Wood

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5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Steve Reich
WORKS: Sextet; Clapping Music; Music for Pieces of Wood
PERFORMER: LSO Percussion Ensemble


This disc is reviewed in partnership with Steve Reich's Double Sextet and Radio Rewrite, performed by Ensemble Signal, conducted by Brad Lubman (Harmonia Mundi HMU 907671).

Part of the pleasure of watching a performance of Reich’s music is the nail-biting sense of a human mechanism on the edge: one missed beat and the whole edifice crumbles. This is nowhere truer than in the classic Music for Pieces of Wood (1973), and the LSO Percussion Ensemble’s riveting recording has the bonus of being live. Moreover, they take it very fast indeed (a good three minutes quicker than that by Third Coast Percussion, on Cedille, reviewed July 2016) and accomplish it brilliantly. I’ve found Sextet (1985) heavy and congested in the past: not here. They achieve a wonderfully transparent weave through which the bowed marimba notes shine like rays of light through water. Again, speeds are swift, the flow apparently effortless, and ‘slow’ evokes a dreamlike languour.

The LSO percussionists certainly give Ensemble Signal a run for their money, even if the latter are directed by long-time Reich colleague Brad Lubman. I was impressed by the sheer technical skill in Signal’s Music for 18 Musicians. In this new recording they tackle two of Reich’s more recent works. Double Sextet (2007), written for six musicians to play against recorded versions of themselves, is here played by 12 together. They certainly bring a warm, jazzy energy, and find all the melancholy mystery of its slow movement. Pianos dominate both fast movements: these two inject a nice bounce into their relentless chugging chords, but the balance renders the higher sustaining instruments weak. Nonesuch achieved a more balanced sound-picture with Eighth Blackbird.

Radio Rewrite (2012), on the Harmonia Mundi disc, has always struck me as an uncertain work: a sort of Stravinsky-meets-the-Rolling Stones. Reich borrowed from one of the many rock bands who borrowed from him, in this case Radiohead. As David Lang points out in his sleeve note, Reich drew only ‘a few wisps of harmonic motion’ from Radiohead, just enough ‘to get his own music flowing’. Except it doesn’t flow, moving restlessly through tired tropes, neutralising – it seems to me – the emotional nub of the original songs. Ensemble Signal dares to create an improvisatory swing, and bring snappy energy in the fast movements, but it can’t escape the dad on the dance-floor cringe.


Helen Wallace