Music for 18 Musicians, Steve Reich

by tacet

In 1976, moving on from experimental works and adventures in tape phasing, minimalism grew up. Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, the genre’s austere masterpiece, has since taken its place as one of the cultural watersheds of the 20th century. Writing for his own ensemble, Reich created a minimalist orchestra of sorts, comprising mallet percussion, pianos, strings, women’s voices and clarinets. This combination brought his proto-synthesized soundworld to life in which four interlocking piano patterns seem to fuse into a clarinet descant, or the intensely pure sound of the vibrato-less strings and voices blend seamlessly into one another.

The influence of Reich’s time spent studying gamelan and African drumming can be seen in the visual impact of a performance. The ensemble is reminiscent of an egalitarian African society in which there is no leader (or conductor) – drummers weaving a contrapuntal web of perfectly interlocking patterns, four village women gossiping – transmuted into the immaculate, clear-cut visual and sonic world of the Western concert hall. Reich’s polemics also blur the boundaries between “high” and “low” genres; in the 70s the work was even played as dance music. It has been taken variously as a metaphor for communism, with its egalitarian power hierarchy and loss of individual identity, as well as capitalism, with one musicologist going so far as to relate the repetitive structures of the music to the rows of identical products in the American supermarket. Either way, it matters to people in a way that elevates it above its humble origins in a Manhattan loft.

Its conception is symphonic in scale, consisting of eleven distinct but related pieces (“sections”) each inspired by a single chord, but each taking the harmonic discourse further. The harmony takes cues from French composer Claude Debussy, jazz, and Renaissance polyphony, all polished and updated for the modern age. As a result, the work is uniquely pan-historical – it sets a re-imagining of ancient music alongside a projection of the music of the future. Its beautifully tonal harmonic spectrum and melodic simplicity embody the minimalist rejection of uncompromisingly brutal postwar modernism.

Inspired by a dream in which Reich and his ensemble were drumming on a beach with the waves washing up around them, growing and fading pulse waves are the driving force behind the work. Groups of instruments expose hypnotic melodic patterns adding a new note every so often – the opposite of traditional practice of linear fragmentation and variation. Slowly evolving melodic figures are set over fixed cadences, with the resulting magical effect of varying that which is unchanging. This gradual development of each melodic pattern reconstitutes our sense of time so that we genuinely begin to value each new note; time really does seem to freeze during a performance. No wonder, then, that Reich, rather than Philip Glass, has won a reputation as “the thinking man’s minimalist” – in place of the interminable, meditative scales and arpeggios of his aesthetic colleague, he reinvigorates the emotional potential of tonality and the musical satisfaction of large-scale form within a trance-inducing and crystalline soundscape.

Below is a recording of Music for 18 Musicians followed by a brief listening guide.

The basic cycle of eleven chords itself is played in sections consisting only of pulses at the beginning and end of the work, much like a mediaeval Cantus Firmus upon which all intervening complexity is constructed. Two pulsing marimbas fill in the background throughout, whilst other instruments foreground pulse waves, each the length of a human breath, to illuminate the changing harmonies. Having heard nothing but pure harmony until now, the marimba pattern at the start of Section I (5:40) is both refreshing and intriguing. The vibraphone gives aural cues when it is time to move on to the next phrase, such as at 6:53, which gives each performance a uniquely improvisatory quality. Section II highlights Reich’s process of additive melody – starting at 10:25, the xylophones gradually replace rests with notes, building up to a mesmerising, endless loop. The arch-like structure of each section is particularly clear in Section IIIA (14:38), in which the polarised, energetic harmony cools off in the centre of the section at 15:50. After circling indecisively in Section IV (22:18), in Section V, the midpoint of the piece (28:55), the bass clarinets lower the floor from the sunny major modes of the opening to a chilling minor. From this point onwards the harmony spirals down into darker territory, beginning with a showpiece for the four pianos, who build a rhythmicized wall of sound by playing an identical buildup a beat out of phase with each other, reaching a transfixing climax at 31:45. Section VI (35:44), reminiscent of the earlier IIIA, has been described as ‘the scherzo of the piece’ – hints of fiery dance rhythms with offbeat accents in the xylophone pulses and a surprise entry of maracas underpin a jazzy syncopated riff in the front octet. Section VII, a darker recasting of the first section, sees the cello taking the role of electric bass to support the voices’ stratospheric bursts of melody (41:57). The busier Sections IX and X at 48:33 and 53:58 respectively begin the journey back to brightness, and after a cautiously optimistic section XI (55:48), the opening pulses return at 1:01:50, as if we have witnessed the complete cycle of a day. We have come to the end of the acoustic maze so perfectly built for us.

Not everyone takes kindly to new recordings of older Reich works, but its popularity has ensured that Music for 18 Musicians has been recorded several times. The above recording is by the Steve Reich Ensemble, but undoubtedly the most enthralling version is by Ensemble Modern, available on the RCA Red Seal Label.

Almost every work by Reich marks a turning point in the composer’s style. The most notorious of his radical, early ‘phasing’ period are It’s Gonna Rain and Four Organs. Drumming sounds like a visceral unrefined cousin of Music for 18 Musicians, while Different Trains stands out as one of the most powerful pieces of memorial art ever created. His jazz and rock influences are also evident in New York Counterpoint and the 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning Double Sextet.

Artwork: Broadway Boogie-Woogie, Piet Mondrian

by Joel Sandelson