It’s now so easy, and informative, to follow the Proms on the internet that I’m in danger of becoming the musical equivalent of that legendary figure, the avid football fan who watches the whole season on Sky and never goes to a match. But one concert in particular has been calling me all summer to the Royal Albert Hall – the Late Night Steve Reich Prom.
Setting off in the dark to a concert (starting time 22.15) presaged thoughts of the coming winter, the need for a warm jacket, bicycle lights and the batteries thereto. Unearthing all this stuff left me in flustered mood as I entered the hall – but the opening seventeen minutes (of Reich’s 1965 tape-loop piece It’s Gonna Rain) immediately locked into my brain waves. Finding it impossible to listen in the long-term formal way I have been trained (and find helpful) to do, I just had to receive and process the rapid stream of short speech segments one-by-one until we were at the end. It helps a great deal in constructing an aural image of It’s Gonna Rain that there are partly recognisable words (famously all the sound derives from a short recording of a Pentecostal street preacher from San Francisco, Brother Walter) and there is just a little pitch range within his spoken voice which the ear eagerly follows. I was so grateful to focus on this exercise in a huge hall, surrounded by many people doing the same thing – if I’d tried to listen in at home I’d have started to fidget. And how beautifully the sound in the hall was balanced and diffused: what can the original tape loops have been like by the time Reich had finished with them, and how did he get from there to this digital version fifty years later?
The rest of the concert ( The Desert Music - bravo, BBC Singers and David Hill) reminded me of various things – for instance that although we always put Reich in the box marked ‘rhythm’, his harmony is distinctive and consequent – but above all that he is the Patron Saint of the Marimba. Watching Endymion’s superb percussion section dance their way through almost fifty minutes of unrelentingly fast-tempo four-mallet music was to see and hear musicians do the thing they are born to do. I travelled home viewing London’s landmarks in an Altered State (see picture !) – and you can’t ask much more of music than that.