I think I’d read the name Steve Reich recently, that’s why I’m writing what I’m writing at this very moment. Now, I’d heard of Steve Reich before recently. In fact, I’ve heard his name mentioned many times over the years. I never seeked his music out. I was never one to check out modern classical composers, avante garde composers, or really any kind of composer. I’d listened to some of the greats, and even own a few classical albums. But to say I’m some sort of aficionado or expert on the subject would be a big old lie.
But for some reason when I’d read the name Steve Reich recently I’d decided to dig a little deeper this time. Maybe since I have a membership to one of those fancy music-streaming sites and that makes finding music a little easier I decided to look. That could be it. I’ll go with that one. In any case, one album grabbed my attention over all the others out there. It was called Music For 18 Musicians, and that’s also the name of the piece. For some reason I was drawn to it. Within thirty seconds of listening to this piece of music I was entranced. I knew I’d made the right choice. It’s a steady rhythm that moves and flows back and forth, never changing the melody, but somehow constantly evolving into something new at every turn. It’s hypnotic, labyrinthine structure envelopes you and you feel you’re in a cocoon of sound, evolving with the music into something more substantial. I would attempt to continue on with the embellished wording to describe this piece more, but I’m not sure I can. It’s something that needs to be experienced.
Here’s what I got off the back of the album sleeve: “The first sketches of “Music For 18 Musicians” were made in May 1974 and was completed in March 1976. Although its steady pulse and rhythmic energy relate to many of my earlier works, its instrumentation, harmony, and structure are new.
As to instrumentation, “Music For 18 Musicians” is new in the number of and distribution of instruments: violin, cello, 2 clarinets doubling bass clarinet, 4 women’s voices, 4 pianos, 3 marimbas, 2 xylophones and metallophone(vibraphone with no motor.) All instruments are acoustical. The use of electronics is limited to microphones for the voices and some of the instruments.” -Steve Reich
So unlike most pieces of music that change from chord to chord, flowing from one movement to another movement in order to elicit some sort of emotional ebb and flow out of the listener, Reich’s “Music For 18 Musicians” works much differently. It’s more like this rhythmic pulse. It’s like the sound of blood flowing through ones veins. It’s the firing of neurons in the brain as thoughts are forming. To me, it’s the creation of the idea. In some weird way, this piece of music is far more emotional to me than something like Beethoven’s “Ode To Joy” or Claude Debussy’s “Clair de lune”. You’re practically pulled along and forced to have some sort of chest swelling reaction with that music. Here, Reich is more of a scientist that seems to find a link between two different worlds. One that is decidedly organic, yet feels very mechanical. It’s like this amazing robot made of earth, twigs, and run on water power. Listening to this album you get the feeling of an electronic album. In fact, if you’d never heard of Steve Reich and “Music For 18 Musicians” and it started playing on your computer you’d swear you were hearing some modern electronic album, albeit a very unique and organic sounding one. One living in an analog existence, not a digital one. The juxtaposition between the piano, xylophones, voices, and woodwinds is striking. Not only that, it’s downright dizzying. If a classical piece could be seen as psychedelic, this would be it. You know, I’ll just say it: this is psych classical. I’m sure Mr. Reich would gag involuntarily reading that, but to me funky ears that’s just what this is. With your eyes closed and headphones on, this album carries you off. It removes you from your comfy chair separates your brain into various divisions. It has a very sedative-like effect on me, anyways.
I may be reading too much into this. This was probably just another musical experiment for Steve Reich. One in a long line of ’em. Regardless of that, this piece is still very affecting. And when I hear it I can’t help but think of other modern composers. Thomas Newman’s scores wouldn’t be what they are if it weren’t for Steve Reich’s “Music For 18 Musicians”. Sufjan Stevens owes a debt to this music as well. His bedroom orchestrations on his two states albums have many Reich mannerisms throughout. Pretty much any minimalist composer working today has a little bit of this piece in their DNA. I’d love to see a modern take on this music. Something like The Magik Magik Orchestra taking a crack at it. Or even an interesting electronic composer going at this with a Moog, sequencer, and some interesting Plug-ins. Go crazy with it.
All I can say is I’m glad I came across Steve Reich’s name recently. And I’m glad I decided to look up this album. It’s been one of those records that’s made me re-think what I knew about music…or what I thought I knew. You always hear people say that less is more. In the scheme of things, 18 musicians coming in and out, weaving sounds as organic as a piece of wood with holes bore into it and mallets beat on thin pieces of metal with varying densities is minimalist in the scheme of overwrought and sometimes pretentious composed music. But the concept turns out to be far deeper and enlightening than I think even Steve Reich ever thought it would turn out to be.