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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The beat of different drums - Steve Reich's 'Drumming' and Daniel Menche's 'Concussions'

Drums, it seems, have been a part of music for as long as there has been music. There’s just something about the lure of the beat that has always resonated with us – summonsing us sometimes to the dance, sometimes to the hunt, but always connecting somehow to that bit within us that, no matter how young we are, is as old as the hills.

It’s perhaps a bit surprising, then, that there has been relatively little music devoted solely to the power of drums and drumming. But two musicians have done just that have, in doing it, unearthed the power of the language not only of drums speaking to us but, perhaps even more, of drums speaking to one another.

Steve Reich’s Drumming was written in 1970-1. Daniel Menche’s Concussions in 2006.  Both are amazing works that, with all their similarities, give us very different perspectives on the productive power of rhythm.

Steve Reich is one of minimalism’s most important composers and Drumming is one of his most important works. But don’t confuse minimalism for simplicity, because Drumming is anything but simple. Its four Parts are all structured around a single 12/8 rhythmic bar, which is repeated over and over and over by the music’s dozen or so percussionists, each varying the speed just a little, so that the rhythms are constantly moving in and out of sync with one another.

The instruments vary from one part to the next – small tuned drums in the first part; marimbas and percussive voices in the second; glockenspiels, whistling and a piccolo in the third; and all of them together in the fourth.

The effect is staggering, hypnotic.  From its very opening notes the music takes you to the edge of your seat, as you wait and anticipate the next shift in the players’ sync, and settle yourself into the new rhythm it creates, while waiting for it to change again and morph into something new: all the time the music’s core DNA staying steadfastly the same. It’s like looking at an image through a mass of mirrors – everything reflecting everything else.

The technique is called ‘phasing’ and Steve Reich used it in a lot of his music, but probably nowhere more compellingly than here, where you see a fascinating kaleidoscope of rhythm, where everything changes and everything stays the same.

While Daniel Menche’s work is the later of the two, it is also the more primal. Its incessant beats build and shift over and on each other with an unrelenting intensity, like the sounds of primordial rain pelting on the inert rock of a new Earth, before life had appeared – or perhaps of the vengeful nuclear rain that will fall when everything is destroyed and gone. The pulses cross each other and form new pulses, the echoes of beats bouncing off the echoes of others; electronic drums pounding, pounding in a thickly, densely harmonised chorus of rhythm. Sometimes the sounds are like the thump of hammers on drums, sometimes they thrash like the clang of metal on metal, but always, always, their energy is unyielding, uncompromising, driving the music onwards in an unstoppable frenzy.

The music is spread over 2 CDs, twenty tracks and almost two hours, but it plays as a seamless whole, as if each beat, and each chain of beats, grows out of the one before it and into the one that follows it. The album’s inside cover tells you to ‘flex your muscles’ – but, really, this music does it for you. You can feel your biceps tightening as you listen.

Both Drumming and Concussions are commanding testimony to the endless, fathomless power of rhythm – to the vibrant, towering life that rhythm creates when it is set free to breed from itself.  Those drums that have beaten since time immemorial are just the seed. Steve Reich and Daniel Menche have given just a glimpse of the tremendous, terrifying lushness of the fruit.

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