This summer has been relatively culture-poor for us. No particularly interesting theatre or musical events in London have caught our attention, and we’ve both been working too much to see any spontaneous, unplanned culture.
Looking forward, now that summer is over, all sorts of interesting events are cropping up. But now we’re not really sure whether it will be possible for us to get out at all, so we’re not booking anything.
Between these two lulls, we managed to get in one excellent evening of dance to music by Steve Reich.
The first of the three parts was set to Piano Phase and Violin Phase. In both of these a short phrase of music is played over and over again by two musicians (pianists or violinists). They start out in phase. Then one of them speeds up marginally so they get out of phase, and slows down again when he is exactly one beat ahead of the other. They repeat that until they’ve gone full circle and are in phase again. Wikipedia’s article on Piano Phase explains it in more detail.
The full description actually sounds boring and technical to me – an experiment, a gimmick, “see how clever I can be” – but the music was anything but. It was absolutely mesmerising. The melody itself was beautiful in its utter simplicity, and even though this was taped music, it sounded very good through the Barbican’s sound system. I imagine it must be rather challenging to play, so live performances of this are probably rare. The phasing in/out kept a constant subtle tension, so despite the simplicity the music never got boring. (While listening I didn’t actually realise fully what they were doing – I just heard the repeating music and shifting in/out of phase.)
Violin Phase was similar in setup, but because the rhythm wasn’t as distinct, I felt it lost some of that magic.
The dance element matched the music. Two dancers performed a simple, short sequence of movements over and over again, shifting in and out of phase with each other. The two dancers look almost identical, and are far back on the stage so details aren’t visible. Instead the focus is on the shape of the movements – pendulum-like with long arm swings and rhythmical 180-degree turns – and the phase, the similarity. Two strong lights cast two shadows of each of them, and the ones in the middle overlap, so the dancers melt into one. Like the music, this was almost hypnotic.
Part 2 also consisted of two pieces of music – Perotin’s Viderunt Omnes, a medieval polyphonic piece for four singers, followed by Reich’s Proverb for five singers plus vibraphones and electric organs. Both are, again, very minimalistic, and beautiful in their simplicity. They are far less technical than the Phases, and really got their strength from bringing out the best from human voices: clear, graceful, melodious. (Performed live by Theatre of Voices.) Reminded me of Tehillim, which I saw/heard a year ago or so, and which I also loved a lot.
The dance part by Richard Alston Dance Company, on the other hand, was completely uninteresting to me. It didn’t suit the music in style or temperament, and wasn’t particularly interesting on its own, either. I found it a distraction, and simply closed my eyes to shut them out. Therefore I don’t really have much more to say about that.
The last part was Variations for Vibes, Pianos & Strings. Nice enough, but not as interesting or engrossing as the previous two parts – relatively tame and neutral compared to his best pieces.
Yet this part was most popular with the rest of the audience. I guess that was mostly due to the dance, performed by three very vigourous male dancers (Akram Khan Dance Company). It had some interesting aspects. For example, even when the three were doing the same thing, they retained quite individual styles, reflecting their different backgrounds (one African, one Middle Eastern, one Asian). But I found the choreography itself a bit simplistic. Much of it was very close to the music, almost acting it out: long sweeps of violins were accompanied by long arm sweeps, etc. At times the dancers were mock-conducting the orchestra in the way a child would: not providing direction but following the music exactly. It was the kind of choreography that might emerge if a very talented someone, with no education or experience in choreography, tried to just dance to the music. I guess this immediacy and closeness to the music may have been what the audience liked about it.
The more I hear of Steve Reich’s music, the more I like it. And every time I run into Theatre of Voices, I like what they do. Both deserve more of my attention, I think.