Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Steve Reich: Music for 18 Musicians

This is generally considered a landmark "minimalist" recording and perhaps the most renowned of the works of Steve Reich.  The composer and colleagues first recorded the work for this release on ECM (notable as the label of jazz pianist Keith Jarrett among many others) in 1978 and there are detailed explanatory notes by Reich.

He stated in the notes that the earliest work on the piece took place in Spring 1974 and completion took place a little under two years later.  The organization of the instrumentation was new with a violin, a cello, two clarinets doubling the bass clarinet, four female singers, four pianos, three marimbas, two xylophones and a metallophone.

Notably, Reich observed that "there is more harmonic movement in the first 5 minuts of 'Music for 18 Musicians' than in any other complete work of mine to date," though he added that most of this consists of "a re-voicing, inversion or relative minor or major of a previous chord" within a narrowed key signature limit.  Certainly, anyone who has heard his "Early Music" recording (featured here previously) or other works prior to 1976 can identify with his statement on harmony.

Concerning rhythm, always a significant component of Reich's work, he pointed out that there were two simultaneous types in the piece, with the first being "a regular rhythmic pulse in the pianos and mallet instruments," while the other consists of "the rhythm of the human breath in the voices and wind instruments."  These pairings involve playing or singing notes "for as long as their breath will comfortably sustain them."  Reich's discovery that these dual rhythms are akin to "waves against the constant rhythm of the pianos and mallet instruments" and constitute a new sound source that he wished to develop in future work is something the listener can easily pick up on, even amateurs such as YHB.  Even though the strings don't "breathe," Reich wrote that the players can "follow the rise and fall of the breath by following the breath patterns of the bass clarinet.

There are also, he went on, a cycle of eleven chords played at the beginning and end of the nearly hour-long piece, that determine the structure, as "all the instruments and voices play or sing pulsing notes within each chord."  In addition, each "pulsing chord" is held for several minutes, during which a construction is added that changes the following chord and stretches them out.  Moreover, repeated elements will vary by harmony and instrumentation, so that a pulse played by the pianos and marimbas in one section will be followed by marimbas and xylophones in a following one.

Reich also employs interesting relationships between harmony and melody, pointing out that "a melodic pattern may be repeated over and over again, but by introducing a two or four chord cadence underneath it, first beginning on one beat of the pattern and then beginning on a different beat, a sense of changing accent in the melody will be heard."  Again, this is also very discernible and is one of several techniques that reveal how repetition can be given variety to develop a freshness that holds the listener's interest in a long, uninterrupted piece.

Finally, the composer explained that the use of the metallophone is as a cue to guide the musicians from one section to the following one "much as in a Balinese Gamelan a drummer will audibly call for changes of pattern, or as a master drummer will call for changes of pattern in West African music."  Because there isn't a conductor who isn't playing, Reich concluded by stating that "audible cues become part of the music and allow the musicians to keep listening."  This also seems to provide a state of constant interplay that aids in the sense that the music flows smoothly in an organic way, though obviously it is a structural facet of the piece.

It is worth pointing out that Reich's studies in drumming in Ghana in 1970 and then study with gamelan in 1973 and 1974 in Bali gave him the underpinning to introduce concepts of these musics in this composition.  Gamelan has influenced a number of composers, including Satie, Cage, Harrison, Bartok and others.

What stands out to this listener on "Music for 18 Musicians" is that there is obvious repetition and order, but the way that the sustained "pulsing chords" evolve harmonically in tune with melody and with varying combinations of instrumentation following from section to section provides a much-needed variation to keep the listener's attention in focus.  Moreover, there is a true warmth to the playing of these acoustic instruments within the evolving framework of the piece.  The result is a richness and beauty that makes for an important benchmark in the development of so-called "minimalism."  Repeated hearing of this fascinating work continues to yield a great deal of enjoyment and it is a testament to Reich's careful and thoughtful approach that this is the case.

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