Steve Reich: Music for 18 Musicians (ECM New Series 1129)


Steve Reich
Music for 18 Musicians

Shem Guibbory violin
Ken Ishii cello
Elizabeth Arnold voice
Rebecca Armstrong voice
Pamela Fraley voice
Nurit Tilles piano
Steve Chambers piano
Larry Karush piano, maracas
Gary Schall marimba, maracas
Bob Becker marimba, xylophone
Russ Hartenberger marimba, xylophone
Glen Velez marimba, xylophone
James Preiss metallophone, piano
Steve Reich piano, marimba
David Van Tieghem marimba, xylophone, piano
Virgil Blackwell clarinet, bass clarinet
Richard Cohen clarinet, bass clarinet
Jay Clayton voice, piano
Recorded April 1976 at Town Hall, New York [?]
Engineer: Klaus Hiemann
Produced by Rudolph Werner

Music for 18 Musicians makes no efforts to obscure the methods behind its construction. As such, it reveals a wealth of mysteries never notated on the printed page. The piece is scored for violin, cello, 2 clarinets doubling bass clarinet, 4 women’s voices, 4 pianos, 3 marimbas, 2 xylophones and metallophone (vibraphone with no motor). With his characteristic attention to detail, Reich utilizes these instruments not necessarily for their evocativeness, but for the unique and varied ways in which their timbres can be blended in a nearly hour-long wash of sound. Calling this “minimalism” would be unfair both to Reich and to the musicians among whom he makes this demanding journey. There is a sense of movement here that is both linear and multidirectional. I say this not for the sake of verbosity, but because Reich’s notecraft commits to its own agenda while latching on to so many others along the way.

The piece begins with a seamless blend of piano and mallet instruments threading its full length like a living metronome. Joining this is a chorus of breaths from human voices and winds. The interweaving of these substantial strands reinforces the compositional density, like marrow and nerves cohering into a spinal c(h)ord of decidedly aural design. At the risk of belaboring this analogy, I venture to see this piece as one active body in which each instrument writes the genetic code of its musical biology. This dynamic is further heightened by the presence of vocal utterances. Although these function as egalitarian extensions of manufactured instruments, they lend fragility to the underlying spirit of the music at hand. These voices rise and fall, slowly replaced by clarinets as if one and the same.

Sudden changes in rhythm serve to reconfigure our attention to the intervention of the composer’s hand: just as we are being lulled into a sense of perpetuity, akin to a natural cycle studied from afar, we are reminded that what we are listening to has been contrived at the whim of a single human mind. Far from undermining the piece, this awareness invites us to share in its re-creation through the very act of listening. Like much of Reich’s music, Music for 18 Musicians is nothing if not accommodating. Rather than patronize or proselytize, it lays itself bare. This brackets Music for 18 Musicians off from much of the histrionic art music in vogue at the time of its creation (1974-76). One could argue that it is scientific in its approach to structure. I prefer to see it as simply honest.

The recording quality of this album is ideally suited to its subject matter. There is a sense of “clusteredness” throughout, so that the performers never stray too far from the nexus of their unity, while also providing just enough breathing room (the performers’ lung capacities determine the length of sonic pulses throughout) for individual elements to shine. Most of the mixing, as it were, is done live through the sheer skill of Reich’s assembly of dedicated musicians, and requires meticulous attentiveness on the part of the recording engineer to highlight that complex interplay without overpowering the core. A beautiful and compelling landmark achievement.

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