Music for 18 Musicians - A website tribute

Phillip O’Banion, the Assistant Professor and Director of Percussion Studies at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, posted a video of a performance of “Music for 18 Musicians” on YouTube here.  The performance, from April 5 2016, featured players from Temple University, Mobius Percussion, and special guests.  Philip kindly answered some questions about the performance, as below.

You had three days to prepare for the performance. Can you possibly describe how the preparations for performing the piece went? Did you have a fixed plan on day one and stick to it? Did you have to go section by section?

Preparation happened in stages, but yes, most of it occurred the 3 days prior. The ensemble was a mix of professionals and students (grad and undergrad, plus some recent alums). I spent a few rehearsals, over the course of a couple of weeks, with many of the percussionists playing through individual sections to get an idea of how they worked, and the piano players rehearsed on their own a couple of times (hard to find a rehearsal space with four grand pianos!).

I sent everyone a rehearsal contract with four rehearsals and then the concert. Tech rehearsal on Sunday night, double rehearsal on Monday, and then a dress rehearsal Tuesday morning, then concert Tuesday night. We were actually missing Voice 2 and 4 at the Sunday night rehearsal, so didn’t have everyone until Monday. The goal for Sunday night was to get all the mic/sound/monitor mix correct. This happened rather quickly with the help of Ray Dillard from NEXUS who knows the piece so well, and is a genius when it comes to sound. We rehearsed sections on Monday, but mostly transitions, and ended both rehearsals with a full run (the full run on Monday evening is actually where most of the video footage comes from - I had everyone wear their concert clothes for that run through). At each rehearsal we would do a couple spots that were rough in the previous run, and then run it again. The dress rehearsal on Tuesday morning actually went very well, and some things were even tighter then than at the actual performance.

I have to say, it was extremely helpful to have piano 3, marimba 2, and clarinet 1 who had all done the piece before in other places. Plus having Russ and Ray present. I don’t think we would have been able to pull it off in such a short time without these guys and the other pro’s. But the students really stepped up as well - I even had some freshman involved in this production, and they really stepped up their game, took this very seriously, and played with great professionalism.

Is there a specific part that is more difficult for the ensemble? Part 5 usually gets the vote here I think because of the piano interplay.

Section V is definitely tricky - hard for them to hear across the stage with the four grands - in fact, I wish we had a little more time in the hall just to do that section alone. Section 9 and 11 also can get weird if people aren’t absolutely on their game. The hardest part is probably just maintaining a sense of energy and focus at the end of the piece, and not letting things get too loose.

What do you think is the most difficult part to play individually? I don't think I would have the discipline to play the offbeat Marimba 2 which runs through much of the work.

I would tend to agree that Marimba 2 requires great focus, but so does Marimba 1 honestly. They are really driving the bus, and Marimba 2 is just following. Marimba 3 is also important. Technically, I’m not sure that any of the parts are virtuosic - but it’s really the mental stamina, focus, and just rock-solid timekeeping required in many of the parts.

What did Russel Hartenberger provide in terms of his input?

Russ was very helpful - general artistic input since he knows the piece so well, and has probably played it more than anyone else. Since I was playing, we needed someone in the hall (besides Ray) that could simply listen and provide critical feedback during rehearsals. He also made comments on things that you just can’t get from the score - for instance, making sure that the marimbas change chords very gradually in the pulses section, rather than a hard shift as some people tend to you. Apparently Steve prefers a much more gradual ‘wash’ to the chord changes in those sections.

Why did you use 20 musicians?

I think we actually used 21 - and it was simply to get more of the Temple students involved in the production.

The sound production is fabulous on the video. Do you attribute this to setup? Presumably there some element of inter-performance mix going on?

That was all Ray - we talked extensively about audio logistics before we moved into the hall, and pre-selected microphones based on our inventory. Setup is pretty much what is in the score - but Ray was careful to mix and blend all the voices. It sounded absolutely fantastic in the space. And it sounds almost as good in the video - for that we took sound from both room mics and from Ray’s mix at the board. Special thanks to Evan Chapman for weaving this audio mix so seamlessly into his video work.

You all seemed to be enjoying it - with so much glorious syncopation to enjoy is it difficult to remain focused?

The piece is actually very groovy - and for percussionists, the syncopation is nothing new. It’s easy to lose focus for a second or two for some of the players, but I do agree with you - most of the time everyone is simply enjoying the sounds all around them. This really is quite a communal piece - and you must listen to everyone around you. But yes - everyone enjoyed themselves immensely - the music swings and grooves in a way that is very infectious and contagious.

Your marimbas looked huge... do you have an extra lower octave?

We did - just what we had in the hall - and I wanted them all to match. They are 5.0 (five-octave) marimbas.

The four singers always seem to be having fun on almost all versions of the piece that I've watched, online or live. Repeating jazzy syncopated phrases I guess puts them in a good mood?

Maybe - I think it’s just unlike anything else in the vocal repertoire, and there is something very satisfying for them about being just another ‘voice’ in the ensemble.

I've never seen a performance with a male singer before - did that present any issues?

I let one of my colleagues choose the singers - I was a bit sceptical. But he did fine with the range - there was just one place where he (Vocal 4) and Vocal 2 had to switch notes for a brief passage.

At section IIIB where 3 players play on 1 marimba always looks fabulous, iconic even - is it difficult to do?

Probably not as hard as it looks… Hardest for the guy who is looking at the instrument from the wrong side for sure, but once you learn the pattern, not a huge deal.

Do you have a favourite part of the piece? Section 6 is often chosen by the media if there is only a brief part to broadcast, but the most wonderful section for most people is section 7 at 36:30 on your video.

I think sections 6 - 8 with the maracas are the obvious climax of the piece, and it’s chosen for obvious reasons. I think 7 is actually more fun than 6 in a few ways, but they both make you want to move.

In terms of the building up of rhythmic phrases - I couldn't see players queuing in the changes so much, say where a piano and marimba have to keep adding another note to the phrase. Was that me or was there a pre-agreed number of repeats each time?

There was nothing we talked about, but I think one of our xylophone players tended to be pretty consistent throughout rehearsal and performance with how he did the builds :)

At 47:05 and 52.30 the clarinet has to indicate a cue to the rest of the players - I've seen this live a number of times with players standing up etc. This is just before section 11 and also just before the end pulses. This presumably is because the vibraphone isn't queueing in the changes at this point?

Exactly - one of the things that makes the transition there (and similarly into Section 5) difficult is because there is no vibe cue. These are the two most obvious clarinet cues, although really the first clarinet cues most of the pulses and also several of the transitions in other sections as well. Vibraphone and clarinet 1 do most of the ‘conducting’ duties of the piece.

Many thanks to Philip O’Banion.