Steve Reich, ‘Drumming’

February 18, 2010

Review of Steve Reich’s, ‘’Drumming’
Colin Currie Ensemble, Queen Elizabeth Hall.
Tuesday 16th February, 2010.

Still great after 39 years.

This is the second time I’ve seen Steve Reich’s, ”Drumming’; last time was about 15 years ago at the Royal Festival Hall. I still remember how the drums were arranged in a semi circle and how one of the guys dropped a stick during one of the complex sections and kept playing with one hand as he picked it up. I’m still impressed to this day.

This performance was just as exciting even though no sticks went astray. From the first assertive pulse of the opening drum, this was an assured and polished performance by Colin Currie’s 12 strong ensemble. All musicians obviously having fun and the overall effect electrifying.

What I had completely forgotten about the piece is the pyscho-acoustic level of the work. The musical aspects are fascinating and deep in their own right – the divisions of the 12/8 bar with the pulse shifting from groups of two, three, four and six, and the phase shifts familiar from works like Piano Phase. But what really surprised me was how the ear and brain deals with sound that is highly repetitive: you get into that sound, you can almost analyse the sound mathematically as you pull apart the layers of the sound and examine each in detail.

The first layer of sound is the surface of the music – you can hear music being played by musicians, and very accessible and exciting it is too. But after a while you notice the second layer of the constituent parts of each note as they happen: you can hone in on the beater strike on the drum skin (and marimba and xylophone later): skin produce a solid thud, marimba a sharper higher transient, and xylophone a metallic fizz.

Then you can choose to listen to the resonant part of each note following the beater strike. A kind of slow attack synth note that defines the pitch and timbre of the instrument.

And then finally – and this is where things can get a bit weird – you can listen to the reverb of each note in the hall. Or rather not each note, but the sum of sound in the hall, a kind of evolving wash from low to high frequency that fills in the gaps left by the beater and note resonances.

You notice that it has a kind of natural compression effect in the ear – when a note is played the reverb disappears, but within the gaps in time and frequency, the reverb zooms back into focus, and then disappears again instantly after a new note has been played. Focus on this stuff, fading in an out, like the over-used side-chain compression in dance music (think Justice) and you begin to hear some very peculiar things going on.

For example, during the early marimba phase of Part II, a sub-bass tone could be heard in the reverb. None of the notes were low enough to generate sub-bass, so it must have been a function of closely pitched beat frequencies? Ear canal sound wave compression? Who knows. It was very bizarre.

One was also able to notice a tangible and crunchy ring modulation effect when two or more xylophone notes were played simultaneously – what can only be considered to be analague frequency modulation, a contradiction in terms. The frequencies being added and subtracted in real time in the room, rather than in digital maths in a Yamaha DX7.

So, the acoustics of this piece are as easily important as the music – I haven’t even talked yet about how the 12/8 rhythm used is based on the same one that Brazilians and African use for their rhythm based music. And how this isn’t a mere copying of African tribal music, but a genuinely new music based on rhythm.

The pyscho-acoustic nature is proved in part three where singers and picolo pick up ‘virtual melodies’ created by the fast repetitive patterns and turn them into reality by playing or singing them.

Blah blah blah, this is all just words…you need to go and have a listen to it yourself!

Oh, and by the way, Steve Reich himself was at this performance and in the post concert talk said it was the first time he’d experienced it as a member of the audience, and that it had moved him to tears. In a good way!


I like Brian Eno

January 23, 2010

I hope we all watched the Brian Eno documentaries last night?

This bit particularly struck me:

“Kids now, they seem to have very little of the snobbery about music I had, and the downside of that is that it doesn’t play a kind of ideological part in their lives. It is slightly surprising to realise that something that had enormous meaning for you doesn’t have so much meaning for them. It’s just that the currency is devalued in some way. So what I look out for is: what does that for them now? Because I assume there’s always  a currency through which people are communicating with one another. So they do pass music around and they appear to love music, but what they really seem to like is the communal experiences that music can give rise to. So what they really like is going to festivals, what they really like is exchanging music on Facebook, not for the music, but for the fact of exchange, the communication.”

Spot on. It’s obvious when he puts it like that – people don’t care about the art of music, they just love swapping the tokens of culture. Rather brilliantly, they showed crowds of sheep people worshipping Coldplay at a festival as the above quote was spoken.

In fact, I can only think Eno producing Coldlay’s last album was some kind of arch joke, cos as we all know Chris Martin is a knob

Cassette gig next Friday: Purple Turtle, Camden

January 22, 2010

Friday 29th January, Purple Turtle

(yes, they spelt our name wrong…)

Doors open at 7pm, and we’re on second so I guess we might be on around 8:30…better get there at 8pm to be on the safe side!


Karel Fialka had hits in the 80’s with songs like ‘Hey Matthew’, and this is his first UK gig for  a long time. Should be interesting.

More details from the Flag Promotions site

Advance tickets from us for £6 – send an email to and reserve them with us (pay us on the day!)

Look forward to seeing you there!

A tiny musical gift

December 17, 2009

The tiniest I could find.

You know when you write a little song that you were quite pleased with once, recorded onto a cassette tape multi-track (yep that’s 2 stereo tracks or 4 of mono) and were rather fond of?

But the recording is long lost – last seen floating around on a C90 near the end of the last century. A shame, but that’s the way it is sometimes….music is a transitory experience and wasn’t meant to be frozen in time on wax cylinders and vinyl and kept on magnetised bits of chrome or magnesium.

Anyway, given all the above, imagine how pleasant is to find this very same song right at the end of a very long mp3 of the soundtrack to Orfeo Negro, which in itself was a recording of a scratchy record onto cassette that I for some reason recorded into the computer at some point.

The song which I’m going on about = and which is no longer hypothetical, but a real and actual song thing called ‘Honeymoon’ – well, it must have been on that original cassette and luckily didn’t get recorded over by the awesome samba of that film.

It was so nice to find, I thought I’d stick up on the internet where it could be ignored by up to 100 billion people!

So, without any further tremendous dollops of ado, here is ‘Honeymoon’ by Subset:

Vocals: Mina
Gorgeous chorused guitar: Des (yes the very same current bassist of Cassette Electrik)
Wonky Moog: Oli
Wonky arhythmic drum programming: Oli
Partial and frequently wandering attention to standard western tuning and harmony: yep – that was Oli.
‘you were curious’ vocal sample: Some chick sampled off Star Trek given to me in 1991 by massive Star Trek fan Looptron.

You know, I think there’s a good song in there somewhere (and I may just have been listening to Stereolab at the time…)

Fluid Piano

November 26, 2009

Interesting micro-tunable piano – would love to have a play with this:

Weirdly they keep referring to it as a piano, but it sounds much more like a harpshichord to me. Oh well.


November 20, 2009

Item 1

Did you see Matthew Collings’ programme about Beauty in Art last week? It was really good. Watch it on iPlayer if you haven’t yet. I luv Mr Collings’ droll yet insightful delivery. I once sat at the next table to him in the Kentish Town Pizza Express, but I resisted the urge to explain how splendid I thought he was.

Here’s the ten things all great (and therefore beautful) art requires in varying proportions:

The Surroundings

He makes a persuasive argument. Read his article here about it, if you’d care to know more.

Item 2

By coincidence I then went to see Anish Kapoor at The Royal Academy. It has all of the above elements in abundance, plus a big dose of humour in the form of  pneumatic gun firing great lumps of blood red wax into an adjacent gallery.

I highly recommend it; Anish Kapoor has to be one of the great artists of our time.

Another of Kapoor’s humorous, blood red wax things:

p.s. (aka item 3):

I wish Collings’ had written the essays in the catalogue for the exhibition – check this example of some of the guff in there:

“Kapoor’s work has often been treated to a kind of critical atavism that constrains the originality of his inventions by framing them in a pre-fabricated metaphuysics of transcendance”

Art-wank of the highest order.

If you write something that is essentially meaningless then I don’t really think you know what you’re talking about, ‘Homi K. Bahba’. Or to put it another way, if you can’t express yourself in normal language, you are in fact, a cock.

Love art: hate art-wank

Bell du jour

November 18, 2009

Today’s bell is to be found in the lovely village of Cropedy, Warwickshire, in the church of St Mary the Virgin. There are eight bells ranging from treble to tenor, covering the notes C#, B, A, G#, F#, E.  They were cast between 1686 – 1690 and were last turned in 1913 – and they are indeed due another turning as they are thinning now.

Here is one of the two new bells of 2007 being raised to the steeple:

Obviously I can’t end this post without explaining why I have now decided to reveal my identity as the infamous Bell de Jour blogger. It’s not been an easy six years, despite the enormous wealth this ancient profession has earnt me. If it wasn’t for a rival bell blogger, I would probably retain my anonymity. Fortunately my friends and colleagues have been hugely supportive and for that I am grateful.

At least I can come clean now, and am pleased to be able to refute those hurtful comments about the whole thing being a fake. I can now honestly say that I enjoy my work, and what’s wrong with earning money at something you enjoy!

However, I won’t be able to continue with the bell blog for obvious reasons, so I thank all my loyal readers and hope you consider this humble offering a worthy – and not too lengthy! – bell end.