north east scotland's festival of new music

press reviews

Double Bill

Written by Alan Cooper


The Sound Festival's minimalist weekend provided audiences with a unique opportunity of hearing a host of seminal works that have come to be catalogued together under the "minimalist" umbrella (whatever their composers might think of that description). The weekend reached a momentous conclusion on Sunday with the Smith Quartet giving a performance of the complete String Quartets of Philip Glass at Woodend Barn and then in the evening another two landmark works, In C by Terry Riley and Steve Reich's Eight Lines were performed live in Johnston Hall.

The premiere of Terry Riley's In C was given in November 1964 at the San Francisco Tape Music Centre. Although it is sometimes regarded as the first minimalist piece Riley was also experimenting with the notion of aleatoric music when he created this work. Even then, this was not an entirely new idea. We have Mozart's dice music for instance but Terry Riley raised it to new levels. Aleatoric music is sometimes referred to as "chance music" but this is not a good description because what is really meant is that it is not the composer but rather the performers who have a degree of latitude in the way the music runs so that every performance will turn out to be completely unique. With In C, the first area of choice regards the number and type of instruments to be used. Sunday's performance had the following: Marimba, Harp, three Keyboards (one with two performers), Clarinet, Cello, Flute, Recorder, Great Bass (really a wooden organ pipe with a mouthpiece) Violin and Vibraphone. A certain number of short motifs are prescribed by the composer and the performers can choose when to begin playing them as well as the number of times they are played. However, if a player has gone on to a new motif he or she is not permitted to go back and replay a previous one which is now finished. In addition, on Sunday, a prepared recording supplied continuous pulsing Cs on a piano. Apparently it was Steve Reich who performed in the premiere in 1964 who suggested adding this repetitive element which provides the music with an anchor point. Professor Pete Stollery played the marimba and directed the ensemble.

Since this was indeed a landmark musical event that deserves to go down in Music Department History, I will list the performers below. They were:

  • Pete Stollery
  • John Hearne
  • Haworth Hodgkinson
  • Dmitri Olayzola
  • Fearghal McCartan
  • Chris Bragg
  • Jennifer Callaghan
  • Beverley Ho
  • Fiona Johnston
  • Chandra Chapman
  • Mary Keenan
  • Emma Lloyd
  • Gordon Cooper

In his excellent book on the history of twentieth century music, The Rest Is Noise, Alex Ross quotes the original review by the critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, the splendidly named Alfred Frankenstein. He refers to "climaxes of great sonority" which arise and then dissolve and to the sense that the music creates in the listener of being outside of time itself. I can't quite match that, but what Sunday's performance which lasted just under an hour did was first of all to surprise me that with such a degree of freedom given to the performers, far from descending into chaos, the melodic motifs combined to produce amazingly consonant harmonic sounds. The motifs must have been composed with considerable skill to allow this to happen. All sorts of musical echoes rose up and then dissolved. At one point I thought I heard a quotation from Mahler's Das Lied Von Der Erde but it was gone before I could hold on to it. To be more poetic, listening to this music was like being mesmerised by the ever changing light patterns cast by one of those glittering balls that used to hang from the ceiling in old fashioned dance halls - and an hour certainly did not seem too long to listen.

Steve Reich's Eight Lines lasted about seventeen minutes and as for me, I was keen for it to continue so I was glad when William Conway director of the NYOS Ensemble let us hear the piece all over again. He gave a marvellous dissertation and demonstration with his musicians drawing our attention to some of the salient points in the construction of the music. The fourteen players of NYOS: Futures, the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland's contemporary music ensemble gave a performance that went way beyond fabulous. This music requires an extraordinary level of precision and concentration and that is precisely what it got. The two pianists in particular demonstrated the most amazing stamina. I loved all the changes of timbre in this piece such as the entry of the bass clarinets or indeed the flutes and the way the string textures built up or drew back. We heard this piece just twice but I could have listened to it a dozen more times. Thank-you, Sound Festival!

  • published on 24 October 2010
  • written by Alan Cooper

Reproduced with permission of the author.

reviewed event
  Date Day Time Location Event Details
24Sun 7.00 pmAberdeenDouble Bill: Community performance of Terry Riley In C + NYOS Futures