Critic’s Notebook: Steve Reich and Bang on a Can All-Stars

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Making music isn’t inherently complicated, but many people like to make it so. Volumes have been written about its construction and tonalities, illuminating us on the architecture and mathematics of organized sound. We have filled multimillion-dollar concert stages with huge orchestras in order to convey its deep, at times overwhelming, glory.

And then Steve Reich walks out empty-handed onto the Disney Hall stage along with Bang on a Can All-Stars percussionist David Cossin, stands before microphones and starts the clapping patterns of ‘Clapping Music,’ which echo through the grand hall with the same power as two timpani drums.

In a little under five minutes, the pair conduct a master course on rhythm and metre that not only reverberates in the crowd but also has reverberated across the globe since its first performance in 1972.

But, then, music can be shockingly, wonderfully complicated, as evidenced by they ways in which Reich expanded the theories of the simple clapping lesson over the rest of Tuesday evening with ‘Video Phase,’ the West Coast premiere of his ‘2x5' from 2009 and the performance of his landmark ‘Music for 18 Musicians.’


Times classical critic Mark Swed has captured Tuesday night’s performance in his review -- read that to find out how it was. But augment his take with a simple acknowledgement from a floored pop/rock critic of the ferocious, mesmerizing performance of ‘2x5,’ a ‘double sextet’ featuring four guitarists, two bassists, two pianists and two drummers -- your basic rock ensemble doubled.

As played Tuesday after ‘Clapping Music’ and the ‘Video Phase,’ ‘2x5' was a wild tangle of rhythms and guitars that, had it been played at a dirty Lower East Side club for a blindfolded Pitchfork editorial staff, would have been hailed as one of greatest guitar performances of the last decade. (But since Reich exists outside the demographic of musicians the site focuses on, it wasn’t.)

At times, ‘2x5' suggested Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band; at others, the rhythmic pummeling of metronomic German geniuses Can or the early acoustic work of Kraftwerk; still others recalled Brooklyn rock group Battles -- multiplied by three and tossed into a vibrating paint mixer. It was as fluidly confusing as the most dizzying Sonic Youth breakdown.

But, then, the 10-piece group had some bona fides: Those who saw one of Paul Simon’s 2011 transcendent performances at the Pantages recognized guitarist Mark Stewart, who served the role of multi-instrumentalist with Simon and is a member of the Bang on a Can All-Stars. Other players onstage, most of them New Yorkers, have affiliations with that city’s avant rock and jazz scenes, including links to composer Terry Riley, former Battles guitarist Tyondai Braxton, longtime avant composer Elliott Sharp, the National and others.

Check out Nonesuch’s recent recording of ‘2x5,’ which is also performed by the Bang on a Can All-Stars. But that version lacks the distorted heft of the Disney Hall performance -- the beefy chords and piercing tones running in and out of phase with each other while two bassists conveyor-belted at slightly different tempos below and dueling pianists dropped melodic circles that wobbled drunkenly.

Vital stuff from a 75-year-old. Hell, vital stuff from a 25-year-old.


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-- Randall Roberts