Magazine article The Spectator

Time for Change

Magazine article The Spectator

Time for Change

Article excerpt

Was it the adorable Mrs Stacey, fount of all knowledge whether in fields of Greek mythology or of wild flowers, who let us know? Or was it dull Mr Jenkins, the Welshman who could never stop talking?

Whoever it was, it was a piece of knowledge, transmitted during one of those lessons we called 'sums', that implanted itself in my prepubescent, arithmetically eager mind for good. It was the truly amazing fact that anything times nothing equals nothing. And that held true no matter how large the anything. Even, indeed, if it were an infinite anything.

I recall this now because I've just heard someone on Radio Four say that in the world of decor minimalism is out and maximalism is in, and I found myself muttering that, by heavens, I wish the same were true of contemporary classical music. Alas, the reverse seems to be the case. This year one of minimalism's high priests, the American composer Steve Reich, attained the age of 70, so in the usual knee-jerk response to such anniversaries the Barbican mounted a celebratory festival called Phases. The blurb writer for the publicity did not have to look too hard for paeans to reprint.

'The most original musical thinker of our time' opined that once great magazine, the New Yorker. 'Among the great composers of the century' agreed the New York Times.

Piffle, says The Spectator.

In an interview still viewable on the Barbican's website, Reich boasts that 'my music has never stayed within conventional boundaries. In 1973, after my ensemble played a concert in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, a young man with long hair and lipstick came up and said, "Hello, I'm Brian Eno." Three years later in Berlin, David Bowie showed up for the European première of Music for 18 Musicians. In the 1990s I found myself remixed by a younger generation of DJs.' What is our response to this name-dropping, this protestation of trendiness, supposed to be? My own reaction is a huge 'so what?'. I'm glad that Messrs Eno and Bowie like Reich's music, but that morsel of information neither validates nor invalidates Reich's cause.

Of course, Reich mentions the interest of rock stars for another reason. He wants us to believe that his music has something in common with theirs. This seems to me a dangerous alliance to claim, because, for all its popularity and however progressive it might purport to be, in purely musical terms rock music is only very rarely adventurous in matters of structure, harmony, colour, rhythm, phrase, texture and the rest. Inventiveness is often its enemy. It depends on familiar formulae, on (to me) dour cliché.

But then it's the dourness, the apparent predictability of Reich's music which makes me so antipathetic towards it, even though I know that it's designed with care and some sophistication, that it is the product of a sincere mind and a lot of extremely hard work. I fully realise that the whole point of the music is that the landscape should change almost imperceptibly, as different layers are phased in and out. I understand that overlapping patterns yield other patterns, and that there's a certain fascination in hearing them emerge. I hear the influence from African and oriental musics. But all this seems to have so little reason. Reich's work seems to reject passion, to be reluctant to make any overtly intellectual challenge. It drawls. Even pieces like Different Trains or City Life where there's a cause espoused, a message to be given, a documentary element that uses the taped voices of real people as structural material, seem to me disturbingly uninvolved, even (dare I say) complacently middle class. …

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