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Illuminations of the Beyond

REX HARLEY listens to 'Hot White Light' -
new music for percussion in Vancouver


As I was going to be in Vancouver for a week, it seemed only common sense to go to a concert. For several days there seemed to be only one contender for the evening of Saturday 25 January 2003: the first of two 75th birthday concerts to be given by Rostropovich, with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. And then I saw the advert for 4 Gallon Drum, a group of percussionists, whose performance was due to include Steve Reich's Six Marimbas.

This mesmeric composition is one of my 'desert island discs', and has been since I first heard it some sixteen years ago, though my love affair with tuned percussion, especially anything that can be hit with a mallet, goes back much further, to the records of jazz vibraphonists Gary Burton and Bobby Hutcherson, both of whom turned to the marimba when looking to extend their musical sound-world.

So it was with a heightened sense of anticipation that I sat in the darkened auditorium of the Scotiabank Dance Centre, near the rough circle of instruments awaiting their players. It is hard to convey the thrill of the moment when, at last, they stood in a tight group, facing each other across their marimbas, mallets poised; or the pleasure of seeing the fleeting smiles which crossed the space which separated them, as the eighteen minute piece unfolded.

Reich himself has written the most succinct analysis of the work:

'The piece begins with three marimbas playing the same eight-beat rhythmic pattern, but with different notes for each marimba. One of the other marimbas then begins to gradually build up the exact pattern of one of the marimbas already playing by putting the notes of the fifth beat on the seventh beat, then putting the notes of the first beat on the third beat and so on, reconstructing the same pattern with the same notes, but two beats out of phase. When this canonic relationship has been fully constructed, two other marimbas double some of the many melodic patterns resulting from this four-marimba relationship. By gradually increasing their volume they bring these resulting patterns up to the surface; then, by lowering volume, they slowly return to the overall contrapuntal web, in which the listener can hear them continue along with many others in the ongoing four-marimba relationship.'

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Copyright © 2 February 2003 Rex Harley, Cardiff, UK


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