Minimalist masterwork

23 September 2019

Review: Defying Gravity, ‘Steve Reich’s Drumming’ ⋅
WA Academy of Performing Arts, Richard Gill Music Auditorium, 23 September ⋅
Review by Jonathan W. Marshall ⋅

It has been a good year for percussion in Perth. In July the University of West Australia hosted US percussion legend Robyn Schulkowsky, while this month percussion ensemble Defying Gravity from the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts mounted US minimalist Steve Reich’s legendary piece Drumming.

Premiered in 1971, Drumming was one of Reich’s earliest suites, and while not quite as mesmerising as his masterful Music For 18 Musicians, it is one of his finest signature pieces. Performed on tuned bongos, marimbas and glockenspiels, which are briefly supplemented by voice and piccolo, the piece is an extended, durational work built around the gradual accumulation and subtraction of beats and materials. Each set of instruments is sequentially highlighted, with transitions from one group to another producing resonant pauses or gaps in an otherwise echoing, sound-filled space. At the conclusion to the piece, all of the instruments come together in a rich polyphony. Moving ever so slightly out of sequence to effect pulsating phase variations and beating patterns is more a feature of Music For 18 Musicians, but phase drifts also occur here. Addition and subtraction are however dominant in Drumming, where 1 beat becomes 2, becomes 4, and so on.

Percussionists playing marimba are joined by two piccolo players
Defying Gravity percussionists joined by voice and piccolo performers. Photo Tim White.

Played in four parts, at several points the work drops into only very slightly varying sequences. Like most so called minimalist work, Drumming is quite meditative, and the listener becomes hypnotised by apparently static motifs which one then perceives have gently shifted.

There are several famous recordings of this work (notably the 1987 Nonesuch recording) but most were taped within quite dry rooms, with relatively little bounce or echo. What seemed most noticeable to me upon hearing the piece live for the first time was how the acoustics of the space produced sonic illusions and ghosts. Strange, morphed sounds not made by any single instrument pulsed into and across the auditorium, and at times one seemed to hear beats where none in fact sounded. The spatial installation of the work, enveloping us as more instruments joined the fury, was especially notable.

Given the piece is defined by Reich’s complex use of basic patterns, the performers of Defying Gravity coped very well with the demands of the score. The slightly rougher acoustics of the Richard Gill auditorium meant that the sounding of the instruments did not really have the pure, almost digitised, artificial cleanliness cultivated in the studios of Nonesuch. Only the marimbas seemed truly otherworldly. Musical director Tim White tends to cultivate within Defying Gravity a sense of light-hearted fun which does not always mesh well with more spiky works, but here the balance of a bouncy execution tempered by the extreme demands of counting and concentration worked to create an ambience which was both serious and amused. To my mind, the performers of Defying Gravity excelled in the long, extended sequences where we really settled into a groove, though the final shared conclusion seemed a little rushed and perhaps not quite as sharp a climax as ideal. In a world of concert programming where the works of Reich, Phillip Glass and John Adams so rarely feature, it was a joy to have a minimalist masterwork like this so well presented; congratulations to all involved.


Pictured Top: Serious and amused; the percussion students in Defying Gravity. Photo Tim White

Disclaimer: Jonathan W. Marshall is Postgraduate Coordinator at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts.

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Author —
Jonathan W. Marshall

Dr Jonathan W. Marshall is postgraduate coordinator at WAAPA, Edith Cowan University. Jonathan has written for RealTime Australia, Big Issue, The Age, Theatreview NZ, IN Press, and presented on radio, since 1992. He grew up beside the Yarra River, near a long metal slide, set into the side of a rocky slope.

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