London Sinfonietta Travels: Glastonbury

On Friday 27 June we were the first ensemble of our kind to play Glastonbury with a performance of Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians alongside Electric Counterpoint with Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. Percussionist Oliver Lowe was one of the lucky 18 to perform on Glastonbury’s West Holts stage. Here’s his tour diary of the big day.

Oliver Lowe © Kevin Leighton

Oliver Lowe © Kevin Leighton

Rock and Reich

What do contemporary classical music and Metallica have in common? Complex rhythmical structures? Fast-paced harmonic changes? The uncharted territories of no-holds-barred cacophony? Perhaps, but we find an unlikely answer at this year’s Glastonbury Festival, where we performed to a 3000-strong crowd of minimalistic Metalheads moshing to the pulsating soundscape of Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians.

Our story begins at the Royal Opera House on a typical English summer’s evening: cold, damp and uninspiring. We had just finished a performance of Francesconi’s Quartett, and it was the responsibility of our managerial task force to transport a herd of tired, soggy musicians to the West Holts stage in time for a performance the following morning. Travelling by train was ruled out, hordes of festival-goers would inevitably be piling out of Castle Cary station as we arrived. We had a time-critical operation underway, and there was no room for a brawl with the punters on the schedule. No, trains were far too risky, we did what any respectable band with a busy touring schedule would do; hired a tour bus.


We broke the journey at a hotel near Salisbury. There were no groupies howling our names, no flash bulbs, no paparazzi looking for the inside scoop for the next day’s tabloids. We were weary travellers simply grateful for the extra pillow options provided by Ainsley Harriott.

On arrival at Glastonbury’s Blue Gate, we were issued with our personalised AAAA (access almost all areas) passes. Eyed suspiciously by burly security guards we were transferred onto a GMTV (Glastonbury Mini Transportation Vehicle) and threaded our way through the bowels of the festival, using secret production routes, passing more security. We were boarded at one checkpoint, the underneath of our seats checked for stowaways. Thankfully no-one was silly enough to bring any contraband glassware. We swapped our Glastonbury tickets for our stage wristbands and finally checked out the comfortable dressing room area and stage.

The stage itself was large, with at least as much space backstage as on stage, allowing for multiple wheeled risers positioned ready to be rolled onto stage with the next band’s drums, amps and tech already set, making change overs very quick. All our equipment had already arrived and been set-up by our stage-tech/roadie, a.k.a. percussion colleague Tim Palmer. He had spent the previous night roughing it atop his marimba, surrounded by cows and sheep. Move over Bear Grylls.

Our short sound-check was soon underway, and we spent the time testing levels for the various on-stage speakers, making sure each of us could hear all the necessary parts of the texture so we could stay together. This mainly involved making sure Marimba 1’s on-beat pulses were fed round the stage, particularly to Marimba 3 who holds the repeating pattern for each section and keeps everyone else locked in. This combination of on-beat pulses and repeated ostinato groove forms the basic rhythmic track for the piece. Everything else that’s played locks into those things, including the off-beat pulses Owen Gunnell and I were playing. These basic components are re-orchestrated throughout the piece, most notably in Section V where the pianos take responsibility from the marimbas, requiring a shift in monitor mixes to focus on the new source of tempo. Ian Dearden (from Sound Intermedia) was on hand to make sure the right changes were made in the right mixes at the right time. A crucial job, considering a wrong move could have left us scrambling around in the aural dark, slowly becoming unglued as we lost touch with each other.

Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead was first up, taking his well-deserved applause for a fantastic performance of Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint. Sadly none of group had an opportunity to speak with Mr. Greenwood but, in an article in The Times, he recently revealed that he is in awe of classical musicians. Shame there weren’t any around though, only hardened Rock Gods.

By the time we went on stage the crowd had grown and we had a packed field waiting for us. The hour long piece flew by, with all of our rehearsed monitor mixes being expertly handled by Ian, and the piece was met with a great reception from the audience, who, I noticed, had spent the majority of the time bobbing along, eyes glazed and mesmerized. I’ve heard London Sinfonietta have that effect on people.

Glasto bow

Before long we were back on GMTV, having speedily packed up, and slowly retraced our steps back to the Royal Opera House where another performance of Quartett awaited us. Some of the gang were able to stay a while at Glastonbury to soak up some of the festival atmosphere and give their colourful wellies an airing.

Our brief experience at the festival was very enjoyable and having followed in the footsteps of many musical giants, I feel I have achieved one of my life’s goals. I hope to be back next year playing off-beat marimba with Guns N’ Roses. That really would be Rock ‘n’ Reich.

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