Introduction to Music for 18 Musicians
Composed by Steve Reich from 1974 to 1976
World premiere April 24, 1976 at The Town Hall in New York City
Steve Reich's original notes provide a good introduction to the piece. They tend to be repeated still on most performance programmes and are available on the Boosey and Hawkes website here.
Q: What's so special about this one piece, isn't it the same as all other pieces by Steve Reich?
No it isn’t. Music for 18 Musicians is special. You can trace its development through some of Steve Reich's earlier pieces and find glimpses of it in his subsequent pieces, however it is unique.
Whether it be a 3-minute pop song or a long symphonic piece of classical music, every composition creates an atmosphere or a statement that is unique in some way. Most music fits well into one or more well-known existing genre's. Much music, even if great music, rarely attempts to fashion a new mould. What makes Music for 18 Musicians so special is that it is so unique. To many fans it is a wonderfully joyous piece of music. A great way to spend an hour and lose yourself in the process of the piece as it unfolds. I like novelist Kim Echlin's description "it lasts about an hour... and you feel surprised, as if suddenly waking from a brief dream, when it is over."
What makes it even more amazing is that it is so mechanically structured. You wouldn't expect something so pre-ordained in structure and format to become such an emotional blockbuster. Steve Reich’s own description of the piece which is used with most of the recordings can make it appear potentially dull. Yet when speaking to other people who love the piece it appears to hit unexpected emotional highs. For me this is the complete opposite of someone like Stockhausen, whoes descriptions on the back of the records always sounded staggeringly fascinating, but musically were often so disappointing, even depressing.
When Music for 18 Musicians fills the air it lifts the soul and makes the world a better place. Thanks Steve Reich for creating this wonderful music which I am sure will still be playing in 500 years' time.
Q:What are the 18 Musicians building blocks?
Constant Hypnotic Pulse : This is the life blood of the piece. From the opening "chomp chomp" of the marimbas to the closing "screech screech" of the violin, the piece has a consistent pulse running all the way through it. Very early on you are aware that this pulsing will not relent whatsoever during the piece, it will not alter its tempo nor will it pause. It is held mainly by the marimbas, which start the piece off, however is taken up by the pianos and most noticeably by the maracas.
Human Breath Pulses : at intervals the woodwind players play a pulsing note as long as they can comfortably hold it, in a softer- louder - softer arc. They appear in the piece constantly during the opening, closing and mainly the middle elongated part of each section. They sound a bit like warm but authoritarian waves guiding the piece along. The two stringed instruments mimic this breathing effect along with the woodwind.
11 chords : these chords are highlighted at the beginning and end of the piece - the sections called "pulses". The resulting 11 sections use these chords as their "base" from which the section emanates from. To hear the chords played in isolation I suggest you use this youtube video (thanks to Jeff Heller)
11 Sections based around one chord per section: The resulting 11 sections use the opening 11 chords as their "base" from which the section emanates from.
The Conducting process : rather than use a traditional conductor Steve Reich opted for audible and visual prompts which come mostly from the vibraphone (or as he calls it metallophone, which is a vibraphone which is switched off) and the bass clarinet, but also other musicians as the piece progresses. Of course not only does this aid the players but also instructs the listener of the next stage of the music which is to come. Whenever you hear the vibraphone you know something is going to happen.
ABCDCBA structure for the sections: although each section has a repeating pattern which runs through it, the background chord sequence changes and elongates, usually doubling in length until coming to its maximum length and then (on the vibraphones queue) becoming shorter again. The effect is mesmerising as the chord sequences nature changes the way in which you hear the repeating pattern, so although the same pattern is being played it sounds different because of the emphasis of the chords.
Building up musical phrases : a phrase which starts with a short couple of notes will gradually build up into a longer more complex rhythmic and melodic phrase. Once you know the piece you tend to anticipate the "next " stage before it happens, which adds to the fun as the phrase is indeed in the mix of the other instruments somewhere, even if not played by the same instrumentalist all the time. Also the start of the musical bar line can become somewhat confused from a rhythmic point of view.
It is long!: One whole hour. It isn’t the longest piece Steve Reich had composed up to this point as Drumming can be longer. An hour seems like a long time to listen to one piece of music, especially one that on the face of it comes from the "minimalist" tradition, yet it is perfect in length. I have never spent such a finer or quicker hour than that spent listening to this music.