Smith Quartet review – Steve Reich headlines minimalist bill

Kings Place, London
The Smiths’ neat ensemble playing brought music by Reich, Meredith Monk and New York’s Bang on a Can community to Minimalism Unwrapped

The focus of the Smith Quartet’s second appearance in Kings Place’s wide-ranging Minimalism Unwrapped series was the New York-based new-music community Bang on a Can, featuring its three central creative figures – Michael Gordon, David Lang and Julia Wolfe – plus two of the composers who inspired them.

The most recent work on a programme that looked back as far as Wolfe’s 1993 Early That Summer was Lang’s Ark Luggage, premiered in 2012, when the Smiths were joined – as at Kings Place - by soprano Else Torp. Lang apparently asked Peter Greenaway to provide him with a sacred text: the response was a list of items contained in 92 suitcases Noah took with him on the ark, but which failed to make it into the biblical narrative – everything from candles and lightbulbs to flea powder and a new toilet seat. The result was entertaining enough, though even Torp’s innocently childlike delivery and the Smiths’ carefully repeated chord patterns couldn’t establish that the piece had any real substance.

Early That Summer was striking in the hard-edged brilliance of its textural contrasts and its concentrated sense of momentum. The Smiths had the measure of it, as they did of Meredith Monk’s Stringsongs, a more discursive four-movement piece that felt unwieldy.

Gordon, meanwhile, was represented by Potassium, dedicated to its first performers, the Kronos Quartet (potassium’s symbol in the periodic table being K). Its slithering harmonies mutating via a fuzz box, it easily held the interest through its 15-minute span.

The most significant work on the programme was Steve Reich’s complex Triple Quartet, in which the Smiths played live on top of two recordings of themselves, maintaining not only neatness of ensemble with their own sound-images, but giving Reich’s dense writing a trajectory of purposive progress.

• Minimalism Unwrapped continues at Kings Place, London, until 20 December. Box office: 020-7520 1490.


George Hall

The GuardianTramp

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