Music for 18 Musicians - A website tribute

An interview with Micaela Haslam of Synergy Vocals

If you've seen a performance or indeed a video broadcast of "Music for 18 Musicians" then there's a good chance you've seen Synergy Vocals in concert.  Micaela Haslam is the founding director of Synergy vocals and has not only performed the piece all over the world but is now regularly employed as an ensemble coach for Steve Reich, most recently at the Royal College of Music in London for their sell-out performance of "Music for 18 Musicians" (January 2012).  

Micaela kindly agreed to answer some questions about performing and coaching for "Music for 18 Musicians."

What is the biggest challenge in putting together a performance of Music for 18?
Finding a venue with 4 grand pianos! The first rehearsal is always a challenge because there are so many people involved (usually 19) each of whom needs a slightly different set of instructions before the piece can begin to make sense. There is of course no conductor (the linear movement of the piece is controlled by the players), so everyone in the ensemble needs to understand how the whole thing works – not just their own part.

Do you usually use 19 musicians, rather than 18?
The piece is called Music for 18 Musicians because 18 is the minimum number of musicians required to perform it. If you have one extra percussionist, it means that the 4th piano player doesn’t have to play marimba, and none of the singers has to play piano. I think the 18-musician version is more fun, but you do need a bit more rehearsal time to sort out all the instrument swapping (not to mention a pianist who can play marimba, and a singer who is happy to play piano).

When did you first hear the piece and what was your first impression of it?
When I was very young, I remember my elder sister acquiring an LP of Music for 18. I only heard a few minutes of it and I remember being somewhat perplexed, probably because I’d been brought up on Classical chamber music and The Beatles. In 1997, when Steve asked me to join him and Ensemble Modern in the first performances of Music for 18 using the new modular score, I could clearly recall the grey psychedelic sleeve of that ECM LP. So that at least left an impression on me!

You have performed the piece all over the world, does it tend to get the same reaction everywhere?
Generally speaking, yes. Audiences can’t get enough of it. Music for 18 appeals to classical musicians, jazz musicians, pop musicians, producers, DJs, and just about every definition of “the general public”. It is accessible, foot-tappingly appealing, easy to listen to and fascinating to watch. At the same time, the piece is beautifully constructed so it’s intellectually satisfying too.

Have you found the reaction to the piece changing over the years?
Not so much the reaction – more the size of the audiences, which continue to grow. Although the piece was completed in 1976, for 21 years it was performed more or less exclusively by Steve Reich & Musicians, so in some respects it’s still a “new” piece. Now that more and more ensembles have Music for 18 in their repertoire, the number of live performances is increasing exponentially.

You were involved in the first recording outside of Steve Reich's own group, that must have been quite a challenge?
We spent a fabulous week in Frankfurt with Ensemble Modern in 1997 learning the piece with Bob Becker, Russ Hartenberger and Steve Reich. It was a real privilege to learn it with the composer and the two percussionists who had played Music for 18 more than anyone else - and a luxury to have so much time together. By the time we came to record the piece, we were all very familiar with it.

How did you come to coach Music for 18?
In 2008, Steve Reich agreed to come to London to perform the piece with London Sinfonietta on the Southbank. Sinfonietta had performed it once some years previously, with a conductor – but they wanted to play it as it was intended. They approached me, as someone who had performed it many times with Steve Reich, to help make sense of it without a conductor. Happily, Steve was delighted with the performance and, since then, has called on me several times to be his “Music for 18 envoy” - to coach ensembles who are performing the piece for the first time, especially if Steve expects to attend the concert, and always if he is to play piano with the ensemble.

I guess you know the piece inside out now, then?
Steve Reich says that I know the piece better than he does, which is very kind but probably not true. That said, I could easily sing Voice 2 part from memory, and I can now coach Music for 18 without the score. The only thing I have trouble with is bar numbers when I need to be specific about where we’re starting in rehearsals. I usually name the section and describe the bit we’re going from, then ask someone in the ensemble to throw me a bar number!

Which part of the piece is most difficult to get right every time?
Sections 5 and 9 are the trickiest in terms of ensemble. Section 5 features the 4 pianos, playing a pattern “out of sync” with each other. It’s very difficult for the pianists to hear one other, and the slightest slip can result in a lost downbeat. In Section 9, there are a lot of visual cues that come from the bass clarinet to players who are very busy and a long way away, so the cues are easily missed. In addition, the opening pulses (waves of sound) are very difficult. It takes a good deal of rehearsal to find and maintain a good tempo, whilst giving enough breadth to the overlapping waves.

Which other pieces by Steve Reich do you perform and do you have a personal favourite?
Synergy Vocals performs all of Steve’s works that involve voices, so Tehillim, Drumming, The Desert Music, The Cave, Three Tales, Proverb, You Are (Variations) and Daniel Variations. I love singing Tehillim, because I think it suits my voice so well, but I particularly enjoy The Desert Music because it’s full of stonking jazz chords (as is the first section of You Are (Variations)).

Do you think we will still be playing this piece in 500 years time?
Without question. There is no piece like it. I know Steve would be embarrassed to be compared to Bach, but for me Music for 18 has the same combination of joyous spontaneity and immaculate construction as so much of Bach’s music. It’s timeless.

Have you heard all the 5 official recordings? Which is your favourite? Isn’t it about time there was a recording by a British ensemble?
To be honest, I don’t listen to recordings of Music for 18. I’m more interested in live performances. That said, I’d love to produce a UK Music for 18 recording using all my favourite players, in order to realise my dream version of the piece. One day, perhaps....

In 18 Musicians the voices form part of the layer of sound but don’t have a solo part as such, does it make it a difficult piece to retain an interest in when you play it so often?
I have sung Music for 18 over a hundred times in concert, so goodness knows how many times I’ve actually sung through the piece – but you can’t get bored if you really engage with all that’s going on. With a new ensemble, there is always the excitement of the unknown. And the more you play the piece with the same ensemble, the more the musicians can free themselves from the written music and enjoy the interplay between the instruments. In my experience, the more you perform the piece, the more you enjoy it. Personally, I love to be “in the band” rather than the soloist out front.

Are the different acoustics a factor? I imagine venues where the pulsing becomes a blur?
Yes indeed. It’s important to have as much time as possible to rehearse in the concert venue so that the players can get used to playing as strongly or as softly as the acoustics demand. The repetitive nature of the piece means that certain frequencies can build up and overwhelm the detail, depending on the venue. This is where the sound engineer is particularly important.

Have you always used onstage monitors? Presumably you are dependent on the sound engineers getting it right – does this depend on the sound guy knowing the piece and can they get it wrong?
Yes, you need onstage monitors, though the number of monitors required depends a bit on the venue. It’s all about the players being in touch with one another – either visually or aurally, or both. The pianists at St Paul’s School rehearsed sporadically over 10 months and always in the concert venue. They got so used to playing together acoustically that they were able to do the concert without monitors. Section 5 was absolutely brilliant. As always, it is important to have a sound engineer who knows the score, and knows what needs to be heard. Occasionally an engineer will need to “ride” the faders, to bring out the important textures (such as the rasping low bass clarinet), or to reduce frequencies that build up, depending on the acoustics. Even when you’ve rehearsed in the concert venue, you have to bear in mind that the sound changes when the audience comes in. A sound engineer can make or break a performance of Music for 18, so it’s critical to get the right person for the job.

Micaela has a whole page dedicated to the piece on the Synergy Vocals website: here

Thanks Micaela Haslam for taking the time to do this.  If you need to contact Micaela Haslam you can do so via the Synergy Vocals website or directly via email micaela@synergyvocals.com