Essential Music: Music for 18 Musicians, by Steve Reich

12/08/2012

Among the composers whose music I’ve been following for more than 30 years, Steve Reich is at the top of the list. I own all of the recordings he has made, and most of the other recordings of his works. (Fortunately, his music is not recorded very often.)

I still remember the very first time I heard Reich’s music. I was at a friend’s house, and my friend pulled out a three-LP box set from Deutsche Grammophon, which contained several early works by Reich: Drumming, which took up four sides; Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ; and Six Pianos. We listened to Six Pianos, with its hypnotic rhythms and shifting phase effects, and when it got to the end, I was a changed person. I had been listening intently to this music, perhaps with some chemical enhancement, and little happened; but over time, the changes became apparent, bolstered by the compelling rhythm of the work, and I realized just how powerful such subtle changes could be over time. From that moment on, I was hooked on minimalist music, and Steve Reich in particular.

The Deutsche Grammophon set was released in 1974, and following that, Reich went to ECM records, where he recorded a number of albums that made him a familiar name among those interested in new music. The most important of these was the nearly hour-long Music for 18 Musicians, composed from 1974-76, which is one of the seminal works of minimalism. In this work scored for percussion instruments, pianos, strings, clarinets and voices, Reich explores pulses, phasing and the relationships among short melodic patterns, and, while that may sound academic, the melodies of the work are memorable, and even get me tapping my foot and humming along. In the liner notes to the work, Reich says, “There is more harmonic movement in the first 5 minutes of ‘Music for 18 Musicians’ than in any other complete work of mine to date.”

This is a difficult work to perform – in part because of the length – and while Reich’s ECM recording is probably the gold standard, a recent recording by the Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble is also excellent. It’s worth noting that the original LP of Reich’s recording was flawed, because it broke the work into two parts; this work simply cannot be listened to with a break, because, unlike most symphonies, there is no pause between sections. Fortunately, the CD came along, and it became possible to play works of that length without a gap.

I was fortunate to see Reich in concert a number of times over the years. The first was a show at the Bottom Line, a “cabaret” in New York, where the classical instruments were slightly out-of-place on the small stage, and where the “large ensemble” playing one of the works on Reich’s second ECM album barely fit. Both Music for a Large Ensemble and Octet are classic works as well, and the ECM period was very rich for Reich’s music. I later saw Reich’s ensemble perform at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in a 1983 retrospective, where most of Reich’s works were performed in a number of concerts. Seeing Drumming performed live was very impressive, as the musicians move around from instrument to instrument, and there is an element of dance in the process.

Reich has written dozens of compositions over the years, but Music for 18 Musicians remains the ur-Reich work for me, together with Six Pianos, the first work that converted me. If you’re not familiar with Reich’s music, you couldn’t go wrong with any of these pieces, but Music for 18 Musicians is probably the best place to start.

Listen to a 12-minute excerpt of Music for 18 Musicians on Steve Reich’s website.

Bonus trivia tidbit: Steve Reich attended composition classes given by Luciano Berio at Mills College in Oakland, California, and one of his classmates was Phil Lesh, who would shortly thereafter become the bass player for the Grateful Dead.