Monday, July 30, 2012

Steve Reich's Drumming Live with Sonic Generator

Sonic Generator's setup at "The Goat Farm"
Atlanta musicians collectively known as Sonic Generator performed Steve Reich's "Drumming" last Friday night. Spokesman / drummer Tom Sherwood explained that this piece "blew open" his idea of what percussion can do when he was a student drummer years ago.  The musicians performed the piece free, for the audience's pleasure, and for their own.

Forty years after "Drumming" premiered, it still sounds fresh. 
But what you hear is not all you get when you see Reich's music live.  It comes close to being a piece of theatre.
First, there was the piquant setting (see picture). "The Goat Farm" is a hollowed-out, boarded-up old factory amid derelict buildings west of Georgia Tech.  I didn't see goats, but a pen warning "Bad dog!" borders the patchy grass parking lot.  For our comfort, a fan blew at the open barn-sized door.  Thankfully, the show started at 9:30, when the temperature had cooled a bit to a mere 85 degrees.  Seats filled quickly, so blankets were spread around the performing area for latecomers to sit.

There's no story or musical program, but we have a direct musical plan.  At first, it's audaciously simple to the point that a casual listener would call idiotic:  One drummer starts a beat on a snare.  Another joins him.   Very gradually, with incredible precision and patience, the ensemble gradually shifts out of synch, then starts filling in spaces. Eventually (but not for a long time!) Reich brings in variety, as the ensemble moves to marimbas, then xylophones.  In some places, the beats are augmented by voice, flute, or whistling. For the grand finale, Reich integrates all the sounds. 

We didn't know the performers by name, but we got to know them during the music as if they were acting characters.  Sherwood seemed intense, almost grave. The most charismatic performer was the slightly built young man in a tee-shirt who began the piece.  He seemed sometimes to be in a trance as he gradually elaborated the beat.  His whole body swayed as he kept up the rapid-fire drumming.   But, as others joined him at the line of drums, he sometimes looked up from the drums to meet their eyes with a look of amusement.   Other characters joined in. A woman in a dark vest seemed to be self-assured and efficient; while a young man with hipster glasses would approach each musical entrance diffidently.   One vocalist seemed serenely involved in the music, while the other seemed unsure.  Other guys seemed to be buddies, shooting each other smiles as if there were some inside jokes going on.

I initially feared that a drumming marathon late on a hot Friday night might make me drowsy, but the stamina required of us and of the musicians was part of the experience.  We appreciated the musicians' concentration, and we felt tense anticipation as pairs of musicians would move into place, their mallets poised and ready to strike.  We wondered, "Will they ever all play at all the instruments at once?" and we felt satisfaction as the company moved towards that happy ending.

The audience jumped to its feet at the end, and there were smiles and exclamations all around.  Steve Reich's music has been marketed since the 1970s as avant-garde, austere, serious Art with a capital "A."  But, live, it's something close to comedy. 

Sonic Generator announces another performance:  Fritz Lang's classic movie METROPOLIS with a new musical score for sixteen musicians and electronic sounds, written and conducted by Martin Matalon.  It will be a free performance,  September 27, 2012, 8:30 pm, at the Woodruff Arts Center in Atlanta.


Anonymous said...

I was able to videotape about 1/3 of the it is!

W. Scott Smoot said...