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Steve Reich, one of the greatest composers alive, gave the 36th Proms performance yesterday, and it was spellbinding. The events began with his 1972 work ‘Clapping Music’, performed by the 74-year-old New York native himself. Consisting solely of two people clapping, phasing in and out of time, it’s one of his more overtly experimental works, but live, it was far more joyful a piece of music than I’ve ever realised. Inspired by a drunken stumble back from flamenco recital, he wondered with a friend if he could write a piece that could be played in the event of a power cut, relying on nothing amplified or notated. It is an experiment, sure, but it’s also a jam, and an elegant digression into what the human body is capable of making.
Next came ‘Electric Counterpoint’, with Swedish classical guitarist Mats Bergström performing the 1989 solo work. Again, the piece is one of those have-to-see-live-things. Mesmerising and ebullient on record, in person its musical quip is stretch-a-grin-across-your-face beautiful – it’s one musician pre-recording 10 parts on the guitar, looping them, and playing the 11th live. It’s essentially a symphony for one, with notes answered, counterpointed, remembered, rethought, discussed. It sounds like a conversation with yourself, a thought experiment, a musing, one of those where you sound really, really clever. And what a lovely thing to think about! Why do people call Steve Reich the greatest composer of our time? Because he can, with the elegance of a perfectly-timed joke, show you that it is impossible to be alone, because you always have your imagination, over some of the most delicate, effervescent music you’ve ever heard. It’s an experiment sure, but it’s also a trick, a sleight of hand, a play.
Speaking of play, the final piece was his masterpiece, ‘Music For 18 Musicians’. If ‘Clapping Music’ and ‘Electric Counterpoint’ offer a riff on what the human body unadorned is capable of and ‘Electric Counterpoint’ speaks to us of where imagination can take us, ‘Music…’ shows what we can do together. Performed by, ahem, 18 musicians over a range of different instruments at different times, it’s always sounded somehow like cities to me, the delicate clamour recalling the mannered randomness of a rush hour commute, or the ordering of mass transit infrastructure, system built unthinking by countless thousands. That’s always what it reminded me of when I first started listening to the great man, travelling into London from Brighton. It takes on so much more majesty live, especially with Steve playing piano in the background, both for literally seeing musicians walk calmly between instruments, but more over for the sense of movement that the piece has within it. Phrases and sections move past you like buildings on a train. Steve Reich, like Philip Glass and Wyclef Jean, famously worked as a cab driver while training. This familiarity with street life in all its human, bursting mess is in every piece of music he’s ever made, but watching this, I realised something else. It’s a view of the world sat down behind a wheel, cruising, at the height street photographers carry cameras and hands rest on canes – a gaze of the city from the gut.