Forty years of modern composition and what this music means to me
When my mum first heard Six Pianos we were driving back from Newcastle, where I'd just bought the piece on CD (this recording, which I wholeheartedly recommend). Mum was driving, and in the end the relentless rhythms were grating on her nerves so badly that we had to turn them off.
When I first heard Six Pianos a few years earlier (in its arrangement for six marimbas) it was a formative teenage musical experience. I can't remember the first piece of minimalism I'd really heard – this may have been it – but this was certainly the first piece I'd seen live, and formed in me a belief to which I still adhere: minimalism (particularly of the Steve Reich/Phil Glass variety) is music for live performance. At their best, seen up close, Reich's interlocking patterns create their own visual magic. You can't follow the movement of all twelve hands on the keyboards, but whichever you look at seems to be performing some sleight of hand trick; the rhythms you hear never seem to lock with the rhythms you're seeing. The hand strikes the keys, there's a sound,
The hand lifts, there's a sound.
Unlike large orchestral, non-repetitive orchestral works, with Reich's music you feel that you can follow how each individual action of the performers translates into the notes you hear; yet this sense only leaves you more open to fooling. You can't follow everything, so what you get is always more than you see.
And then there's the sound. My Six Marimbas epiphany was at the Albert Hall, with the stage positioned ideally in the centre so that the resonance shot straight up and swirled around the auditorium, like a wall-of-death biker. It was the first time I'd really heard all the auditory tricks to be found in deep, sustained resonance – strings and choirs drifted down, curtain-like from the gallery, the walls hummed.
Since then, I've preferred my minimalism in granite slabs like Six Pianos. On the same CD as linked above, Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ just about fits the bill (although in a much more tintinnabulate fashion), but Variations for Winds, Strings and Keyboards marks the point at which Reich seems to lose some faith in the power of those sculpted blocks, domesticating them with semi-functional harmony, traditional forms, pseudo-melodies, stratified orchestration and so on. With the sustained wind notes of Variations – by which the visual performative act is subordinated to the sound it makes – the edgy unpredictability of something like Six Pianos is lost (simply put: wind playing doesn't look as good as percussion, or even strings).
The other edgy thing about Six Pianos places it firmly in the American experimental tradition, something that is some way behind Reich by the time he writes Variations. For a couple of years my dad, in semi-retirement, worked at the local music shop (my parents' village is home to England's largest music shop north of Leeds) helping restore pianos. He once told me about the complexities of tuning pianos, and why it is so hard to tune one, damn near impossible to tune two to each other, and actually impossible to tune three or more. I don't know if it qualifies as an example of chaos theory, but the upshot is that even small variations in the wood and metal used in piano construction can affect the way in which it is tuned. Since no piano, being equally tempered, can be tuned absolutely, the material variations affect the tuning compromises that are made across the entire keyboard. Dad could explain this much better than I, but the result for Reich's piece is that even though the notes are on the surface composed to give the impression of one single super-piano rather than six individual instruments, a monochrome wall of sound, the end result is in actual fact completely unpredictable. Reich's fully-notated, metronomically precise work is in fact deeply reliant on chance, on an awareness of the physical limitations of music-making, and the points where pressure can be applied. Each piano has its own slightly different tuning, and when six are played together, there is no mistaking the six different instruments for one; it's not that difficult to aurally pick out individual voices within a Six Pianos performance (even if the appearance can momentarily deceive). It would of course be simple to realise Six Pianos through MIDI, but even with the best synthesised piano available there could never be any confusion over which version was acoustic, which digital. The MIDI version would have its own qualities, for sure, but it could never glisten with the clashing of all those ever-so-slightly off-key upper partials; there would be no breath in the sound. We are back to the essential drive for live performance that is built into Reich's music.
In this respect Six Pianos shares something with the work of Brian Ferneyhough – an awareness of the potency of live performance. The relationship between score, performer and sound is unique, and central, to classical music, yet not all composers (and fewer performers themselves) are willing to explore its ramifications. There is a danger in thinking that since there is such a thing as a good or a bad performance, there must, somewhere, be a Platonic Form of that work. The problem is that when that Form is discovered, it will render all other performances useless. Thankfully music does not exist in such a sterilised world; it is rather in the deliberate non-congruence of six pianists playing six pianos, and in this, Reich's work has an important lesson for all musicians.