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Steve Reich Celebration: Repercussion

Peter Jurew By

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Steve Reich Celebration: Repercussion
National Sawdust
Brooklyn, NY
December 10, 2016

As part of the many celebrations of composer Steve Reich's 80th birthday throughout 2016, the World Music Institute and National Sawdust co-presented a program in December that brought the Ghanaian master, Gideon Alorwoyie, together with the critically-acclaimed Mantra Percussion Ensemble for sixty minutes of riveting music and dance.

The back story on this landmark performance begins in the summer of 1970, when Steve Reich traveled to Accra, Ghana, and studied with Gideon Alorwoyie, then resident master drummer of the Ghana Dance Ensemble. In the year following his return from Africa, Reich worked almost exclusively on a piece eventually known simply as Drumming, which writers on modern music have called the first minimalist composition. With Ghanaian rhythm and culture as an organizing focus, and with the great Alorwoyie himself in the house on the appropriately minimalist National Sawdust stage, the concert's producers were able to look back at Reich's experience and address the question: what exactly did one of the great modern Western composers actually learn in West Africa?

Fittingly, Alorwoyie opened the festivities, abetted by a trio of Mantra Percussion players, all working traditional West African percussion instruments in a generous excerpt from Drumming; the musicians were joined by a magnificent female dancer who glided onto the stage, her supple movements breathing life into the traditional Ghanaian rhythms and demonstrating the complete interconnectedness of music and dance in African culture. Alorwoyie is originally from Anlo-Afiadenyigba in the Volta region in southeast Ghana, West Africa, and is regarded as one of Ghana's foremost virtuosos of traditional music and dance. For the past two decades, he has been professor of music and principal dancer/choreographer at the University of North Texas, as well as Director of the African Percussion Ensemble there, and a member of the Council of Elders, Dance Africa Chicago.

The second section of the concert featured the excellent work of the Mantra Percussion ensemble. Since forming in 2009, Mantra Percussion has been featured at festivals and universities throughout North America and in Europe. Focused on bringing to life old and new work of percussion music, the group collaborates with artists from diverse genres and styles with a stated goal of questioning "what it means to communicate music with percussion instruments." In this section of the show, Mantra performed selections from Reich's Four Organs, an intense minimalist work that rockets along upon the repeated runs and subtle harmonic changes played by four keyboardists arranged like players seated at a square card table. Though the composition of Four Organs pre-dates Drumming by several months—making its premier in May, 1970, just before Reich traveled to Ghana—non-Western influences are already apparent in the piece's use of West African rhythms and instrumentation to anchor the swirling, mesmerizing electronic organs.

The third and final section of the evening was a fascinating excerpt from Reich's Music For Pieces of Wood, which was arranged on this occasion for two Western drum kits. Facing each other on the trap sets, the two Mantra Percussion drummers built tempo and intensity slowly but inexorably, matching and repeating each other's hits and then, first one then the other, adding in slight rhythmic variations. It was a driving, masterly tour de rhythmic force.

For the encore, the audience stood and clapped along as the Mantra musicians laid down a bed of West African beats for Alorwoyie to lead his female partner in a sensual dance—the greying master's lithe movements defying his years and bringing the evening to a sweet conclusion. The crowd filed out into the Brooklyn night beaming, having not just learned about but experienced essential elements of a great modern composer's immersion in non-Western rhythm and soul—a wonderful lesson brought to ecstatic life.

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