REICH: Music for Eighteen Musicians

by Walter Simmons

REICH: Music for Eighteen Musicians. Steve Reich and Musicians. ECM-1-1129, produced by Rudolph Werner

Of the various reactions against the hyper-cerebral academic serialism that monopolized the modern music scene during the 1950’s and 60’s, one of the strangest and most highly publicized of the past few years has been the sort of ostinato-music practiced by, most notably, Philip Glass and Steve Reich (b. 1936). For those who have yet to experience this new genre, these composers have devised a sort of music based on the static reiteration of small, simple motivic units, which are then subjected to barely perceptible alterations that change the nature of the sound over a long period of time without abrupt transitions or contrasts of any kind. In Reich’s music, gently syncopated figures usually interact with a constant rhythmic pulsation of a rather rapid rate, adding to the mesmerizing quality of the music while giving a greater semblance of activity. Aside from rhythmic and textural aspects, the basic parameters of the music are simple: melodies are usually pentatonic, harmony rarely exceeds the seventh-chord in degree of dissonance, and tonality is static over long periods of time. The overall effect resembles, in a variety of different ways, African music, Javanese gamelan music, as well as the music of Lou Harrison, Carl Orff, and Harry Partch.

Music for Eighteen Musicians, completed in 1976 and first performed in that year, appears to be Reich’s most recent major work. I had the opportunity to attend a live performance of the piece on the same day that I received this record for review. Reich and his troop of musicians have achieved a rather impressive cult following, and every seat of Columbia University’s Wollman Auditorium was taken, with the overflow crowd filling  every available space on the floor. The players, among whom is Reich himself, appear in informal attire, and perform with no visible ostentation whatsoever. Despite the fact that some might detect in the music an evocation of psychedelia—what others might describe as a hypnotic or transcendental feeling—Reich vigorously denies that he has any such intentions; rather he insists that his music is meant to be apprehended by clear, perceptive minds; that, like the music of the classical masters, it is susceptible to appreciation on levels ranging from the casual to the professionally analytical, but that it presumes no mystical or mind-altering preparations or propensities. Still, I would venture a supposition that most listeners whose musical expectations have been conditioned by the rate of stimulus transformation afforded by the western symphonic tradition will find themselves impatient with the apparently static unfolding of Reich’s music, and that those listeners with the greatest proclivity for meditative or altered states of consciousness are likely to be those most favorably impressed by what Reich has to offer. Not the least of the attrac­tions of this music, incidentally, is the achievement of the performers, who are able to sustain these ostinatos over long periods of time without faltering—a feat that must demand extraordinary discipline. I might add that the crowd at Columbia rewarded Reich and his ensemble with an enthusiastic standing ovation.

I find Music for Eighteen Musicians to be the most satisfying and fascinating of Reich’s pieces that I have yet heard. Just under an hour in duration, it is scored for violin, cello, two clarinets doubling bass clarinet, four women’s voices, four pianos, three marimbas, two xylophones, and metallophone. The work is based on a succession of eleven chords, deliberately introduced at the outset. Each chord is then used as a prolonged cantus firmusover which a brief mini-composition is generated. The many sections that comprise the work are connected to one another, and a pulsating ostinato continues throughout. Furthermore, as section leads into section, several elements from one are held constant through the next, so that the progression is very gradual, and the continuity is never broken. The diversity of instrumental color in this particular work, and the concentration of musical substance, compared with other works of this genre, are undeniably compelling. There is a luxuriant yet strangely impersonal quality to this music, as wave-like rushes of delicate sound-crystals ebb and flow in throbbing pulsation. In its indulgence in depersonalized sensation there is something characteristically 1970’s.

Whether one is sympathetic to this sort of thing or not, few listeners would find any of these sounds objectionable in themselves. Yet the virtual absence of climax or contrast, and the extremely slow unfolding make great demands on the listener’s attention, and I for one find myself growing rather impatient by the time the piece is half over. This is, however, not to deny the inherent interest at any particular point or the originality of the sounds themselves and of the concept behind this approach to formal articulation.

This disc is a perfect illustration of the superior richness both of sonority and of detail offered by the recording medium. The intricacies of the music come alive with incredible clarity and depth, and the performances are truly inhuman in their precision. The surfaces are equally fine.