The middle of May, and the Barbican appeared to be over-populated with percussionists. Particularly North American percussionists. If you had a beater and a twang that weekend, you could have probably got involved, writes Dave Robinson.
The occasion was the Reverberations festival at the central London complex, a marathon two days of music celebrating ‘The influence of Steve Reich’, arguably the USA’s greatest living composer, and certainly a pioneering figure in percussion-based performance work. Minimalism? Well, they used to call it that, but Reich’s style has come a long way from his tape-loop pieces of the ’60s. That being said, the festival opened with the stripped-down Music For Pieces of Wood, while his other classic, Clapping Music, was performed at the closing concert, with Steve Reich himself (75 this year) as one of the participants.
Reverberations took place at two venues: the Barbican Hall, and the bijou LSO St Luke’s venue, just up the road. Artists appearing included the Britten Sinfonia, Brooklyn’s Bang on a Can, Vancouver’s So Percussion, and the Amadinda Quartet. Composers featured were Reich, Steve Martland, Max Richter, Julia Wolfe and many more.
“We have a warm relationship with Steve Reich, and every time we work with him it seems to go really well,” says technical manager for the Barbican Hall, Jasja van Andel (pictured, inset, above).
Challenges for the Dutchman included “the sheer amount of instruments, the high pressure of the changeovers between the pieces, and the number of people on stage”. The Guardian newspaper commented on the ‘value for money’ offered for concertgoers: the Saturday night gig, which featured the Kronos Quartet and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, started at 6pm and, with intervals and breaks, didn’t conclude until after midnight!
While much of the gear was provided by the Barbican’s own resource, additional kit was hired in from Richard Nowell Sound Services. (RNSS has enjoyed a long relationship with the venue, and supplies both the Barbican and other London arts venues on the South Bank.) David Sheppard from Sound Intermedia mixed the shows.
An unlikely highlight was when Owen Pallett, a Canadian musician with an amazing mastery of the violin and looping techniques, performed his new album Heartland with his band and the Britten Sinfonia on the Sunday evening.
“Sunday was interesting,” says van Andel. “The Sinfonia, the Synergy Vocals group, and Owen Pallett’s band, that was a challenge: a fairly small symphony orchestra, yes, but combined with Owen Pallett’s band, and heavily amplified – how to do it?”
His solution was to close-mic all the instruments, using DPA microphones, and submix the orchestra before it reached the main desk. “Owen’s band was in front of the Sinfonia, acoustically and physically, so by close-miking we had some control. We went for the industry standard DPA 4060s, that will always be our choice, those or the 4061s,” says van Andel.
“Our whole philosophy was to keep it simple,” he continues. Two systems were employed FOH: a Midas Venice for the submix, routed to a 48-channel Heritage 2000; plus a Soundcraft Vi6.
“The most channels at one time was 42 on the Heritage 2000 plus 24 submixed on the Venice. So the Sinfonia’s orchestral lines went into the Venice and then the Heritage, along with Owen Pallett’s band, then we moved over to the digital board later for acts like the Kronos Quartet and Bang on a Can – almost splitting the acts in two if you will. Some of the engineers had preferences for a digital board, and decided between them on the Vi6. The benefit for me is that I know both Heritage and Soundcraft; I know what they are capable of.”
Monitor desks were another Heritage for the Sinfonia, and a Yamaha PM5D for the later acts. There were no in-ears on the project: just Meyer USM monitors (“beautiful sounding, industry-standard”) and Klark Teknik graphics.
The in-house PA features a M’elodie centre cluster, MILO hangs either side, and HP700 subs. “With the two Meyer Galileo controllers, so we can time delay and EQ the hall it orchestral or pop stuff effortlessly.” Though van Andel says the house PA “does the job really, really well”, just occasionally he requires a little more power out of the system, so extra UPJ-1Ps have been stacked on the side of the stage for this purpose. (“The hall is beautiful sounding but not very forgiving,” he adds as an aside. “If things go wrong, they go very wrong!”)
Could van Andel have managed everything using just one suitably specified digital FOH or monitor desk?
“Yes, but I would have had to change the infrastructure of the theatre. I have 72 channels of copper already in the hall, so I don’t have to put cable in. Purely from a budget point of view it would be stupid not to use the analogue board. And I still love the accessibility it gives.
“My technicians know the equipment, the numbering on the stage boxes and so on, so using that infrastructure makes things easier. But on this occasion, using the [additional Vi6] digital desk and separating the acts created the best clarity within the structure as a whole. Maybe in future we’ll look at digital.”
Other mics used in the performances included “a lot of AKG C 414s and Neumann KM 184s”. Van Andel explains: “We might have the 184 on a marimba, and in the next piece on a horn. Using a good quality mic which is honest in its response, you can get away with that!”
Does mic placement for the percussion instruments, such as the marimbas, require a specific approach?
“It certainly does,” he says. “It’s a balance between the ‘cloud’ effect – getting the ‘whole’ sound from around the instrument – and the sound directly from the instrument. We tend to mic from above, with the stands in front.
It’s a small surprise no one suffers a pratfall during the performances, in fact. Musicians in Reich’s percussion pieces tend to move between different instruments during pieces; and of course, with all the cables everywhere, there’s plenty for the backline crew to trip over too.
“Our technicians are trained in where to tread!” laughs van Andel. But that leads him to a fair point about the whole venture. The cluttered stage, the reconfiguring of chairs and microphones between pieces, the dangerously tight schedule… just like, well, a real music festival.
“We over-ran at times, but overall I’m extremely proud of my team, there was a great atmosphere all the time.
“The power of the weekend was that all those different pieces combined gave a great overview of what Steve Reich is capable of. And the sheer amount of stuff on stage, yes it wasn’t pretty, there were music stands and instruments there not being used. We could have made it look prettier, but in the end it’s about the music!”