Review Summary: Music for 18 Musicians is an effortlessly brilliant piece that manages to be both groundbreaking and strikingly beautiful.
The first section of Steve Reich’s 1978 composition Music for 18 Musicians
begins with a pulsing vibraphone, pounding out notes every quarter beat. That vibraphone is soon echoed by another vibraphone. Eventually, violins, clarinets, pianos, and female vocalists coalesce into one body of pulsing notes which fade in and out. These oscillating patterns keep repeating with a remarkable boldness. Fair enough, this section is called “Pulses”. By the time “Pulses” ends and “Section I” begins, the pulses soon turn into stunningly beautiful arias, like a theme to an underwater utopia. Some instruments take the backseat and are still playing fluctuating patterns, while others take the center stage and revel in their own melodies, delightfully bouncing off each other. Harmonies swirl in one ear and out the other, engaging the listener in a sort of sonic rite of passage that, sadly, only a few will experience. Make no mistake: this is a limitlessly brilliant composition, one that is both intense and effervescent, both exhilarating and relaxing, both innovative and uninhibited.
Steve Reich’s earliest vocal works, namely Come Out
and It’s Gonna Rain
, were innovative, but also alienating and nearly unlistenable to anyone without a gargantuan amount of patience or an “avant-garde” mindset. They showed a composer that could hear a potential composition in everyday conversations or in the daily news (these methods would soon be extended to his later pieces Different Trains
and City Life
). Despite the fact that these are now considered defining pieces in both process music and minimalism, they were such an abnormal curiosity that many casual listeners would have a hard time taking them seriously, if listening to them at all. Reich’s shift away from spoken word and towards music is evident in his pieces Piano Phase
and Violin Phase
, although these pieces were no less difficult than their tape-based cousins. So, while these earlier pieces were radical and cutting-edge, they were nowhere near accessible to any sort of mainstream audience. Music for 18 Musicians
is undoubtedly Reich’s answer to an alienated audience’s cries for help.
Music for 18 Musicians
is a sonic cycle based around eleven chords. The first and last sections, both named “Pulses”, are the beginning or end of the cycle, depending on how you listen to the piece. If desired, Music for 18 Musicians
could be played without pause, allowing the cycle to repeat itself over and over again: an unbroken chain of musical wonder. The piece is about 55 minutes long, requiring a good sit to get through it. But do not worry: whatever meeting or assembly you have to attend can wait just this once. Throughout the piece, melodies slowly materialize and dissipate while chords quiver and roar in the background. The composition is a sonic masterpiece, making brilliant use of timbre and tone quality, giving form to sound so full you think you can reach out and touch it. The piece has been recorded many times by many different groups, from Steve Reich himself to student orchestras (I myself own the ECM 1978 original recording and the Nonesuch 1998 re-recording). Almost every release bursts with luminescent life, with each taking on its own personality.
Each section of the piece has its own personality and defining melody, but the piece is not a collection of individual sections: it is one whole musical specimen. Each section leads into each other flawlessly and without any pauses. The music itself is reminiscent of the soundtrack to a utopia of colors, each instrument its own hue or chroma, with each harmony letting the shades combine and burst into brilliance. The instruments all act as one whole but are also individual, melody lines acting as one but also as a complement to the rest of the instruments. The piece is a sonic experience that anyone can enjoy and continue to process on their own terms after they have heard it.
Rarely have I ever bestowed such praise upon a musical piece of any kind, but Music for 18 Musicians
fully deserves it. It destroys every boundary that any have created for Steve Reich or even minimalism itself. It starts at a fast pace and keeps that pace, but also permits itself to be sublimely beautiful. It is one of the defining pieces of contemporary classical music, and shouldn’t be missed by anyone who has a passing interest in minimalism, contemporary classical, or even music itself.