Music for 18 Musicians - A website tribute

Version 1. The original ECM Version by Steve Reich and Musicians. An incredible original classic with brilliant production. Some of the qualities of this version have still not been surpassed. Section 5 is still arguable the best rendition amongst the group of 5 recordings. Up to this point Steve Reich's music had generally been released by Deutsche Grammophon (DG).  These original DG recordings are far harder to listen to that this ECM recording. Even the DG version of the beautiful "Music for Mallets instruments Voices and Organ" manages to fall somewhat flat in comparison to later recordings. I once spoke to Steve Reich about this aspect and he said that the original DG engineers were somewhat obsessive with the "minimalist" idea and wanted to convey the music through the notes and rhythm only and not through using the mixing desk or any studio techniques. 

The following comments about this recording came from Steve Reich's agent in February 2013:

"Music for 18 Musicians was recorded by Steve Reich and Musicians in a few days at the Studio des Dames in Paris (a pop studio) in 1976. It was recorded for Deutche Granmophon. It then was edited by Reich together with engineer Klaus Hiemann and producer Rudy Werner at the DG editing/mixing studios in Hannover.   It then sat 'in the can' for about 2 years while Polydor, the then parent company of DG discussed how to release it. They finally decided they would start a new label. Not their yellow classical label and not the red pop label but a new 'orange' label. On this new label they thought they would release Music for18 Musicians along with Balinese Music, Chick Corea, Stockhausen, etc. To cut a long story short, that never happened and Polydor heard that Eicher at ECM was interested in releasing it. At that time Bob Hurwitz ran ECM in New York through the Warner's office and it was Bob who convinced Reich that he and ECM would really stand behind the record and promote it.  Music for 18 Musicians sold over 100,000 copies in the first year."

The tempo is brisk, and the performance sweeps smoothly from beginning to end. You get the impression of a lush sound with no great differentiation among the instruments. This makes the bass clarinets stand out as a structural framework. If this is the only recording you’ll ever hear, you probably won’t be able to figure out how the ensemble sound is produced. This is an affecting and even enchanting aspect of this recording.

Version 2. The 1996 Nonesuch recording. The 2nd outing direct from Steve Reich and Musicians again, 22 years after the ECM version. It's amazing that no-one else recording the piece in all this time - although that is down to there not being a written score for the piece for all of that time. This is a lovely warm production with a lot of bass coming through in comparison to the original ECM version. 

This version is slower and longer than the original recording. There is more differentiation among the instruments than in the original, so you get more of a sense of how the sound is produced. It’s an especially good recording for hearing the xylophones, pianos and voices. This recording doesn’t have the sense of flow of the original, but instead is more distinct in its changes from one section to the next. 

The original liner notes for this version, written by K. Robert Schwartz, say that the version is 11 minutes longer than the original.  It clocks in at just over 67minutes with the original at just under 59 minutes.  That is 8 minutes difference - what happened to the other 3 minutes?!?


Version 3. Ensemble Modern 1997. Now that there was a score available other groups began not only to play 18 Musicians but also to record it, and Ensemble Modern was the first to do so. This was the first version released outside of Steve Reich and his own ensemble.

Michaela Haslam recalls: "I seem to remember that we spent about a week rehearsing in Frankfurt with Ensemble Modern, Russ Hartenburger, Bob Becker and Steve Reich – so we learnt from the masters!  Brad Lubman was also on the team, conducting the first 2 scenes of Hindenburg (the only section of Three Tales finished at the time) and generally helping out with the ensemble.  Steve was certainly around for the recording.  I remember sitting on a train with Steve Reich going through the vocal parts and discussing with him how various instructions could best be relayed to the singers – so editing was certainly ongoing in respect of the new M418 scores.  I guess we were the proverbial guinea pigs.  At that stage, we were Synergy Vocals but we didn’t have a name, hence the list of names on the CD.  We’ve come a long way since then!"

Version 4. Amadinda & Musicians live from Budapest in 2004. The excerpt I included here sounds very loud when compared to the other productions and in particular the Grand Valley version. It is a live version and the production values are more raw, but the energy is fantastic. The pace is fast and highly energetic. It suffers a little in comparison to the others in that the pulses are lost somewhat in the mix - they sound more like a drone than a pulse.

Version 5. Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble in 2007. It sounds a bit quiet here in comparison to the more bombastic live version, but I love this version of 18 Musicians. The recording quality and mix is simply brilliant. I don't know if this is deliberate or just the way things were setout in the studio or mixed, but there are things on this version which I've not heard elsewhere. It seems to me to be a tad slower but this adds rather than subtracts as there appears to be more space to breath during some of the more busy sections of the piece. It is available in SACD which I gather will provide 5:1 speaker profile - but I aint the kit to hear it. Has anyone out there tried  this?

Version 6: (updated May 2015) this new recording released in May 2015 by  harmonia mundi France(HMU907608), performed by Ensemble Signal, directed by Brad Lubman,  recorded at EMPAC Troy, NY (USA) in March 2011.   

The recording of 18 features Ensemble Signal along with members of Third Coast Percussion, twenty musicians in total. The recording is the result of a week-long residency of the musicians at EMPAC in mid-March, 2011 that culminated with a public performance on March 12th 2011. 

This recording was awarded a Diapson d'or in May 2015.

The following review was written by David Bronczyk of
Harleysville, Pennsylvania in May 2015 (Thanks David) 

It’s been eight years since the last recording of “18” was released; since that time, I’ve been thoroughly convinced that the Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble’s splendid rendition of “18” was the definitive recording of the piece. Until now. Ensemble Signal has produced a stunning and superlative performance: from start to finish the ensemble is meticulously precise, well-proportioned, and graceful. Every instrumental nuance is voiced with crystal clarity; in this recording I heard notes that were obscured, muffled, or seemingly absent in the previous five recordings.

Many first-time listeners to “18” might be too quick to complain about the seeming repetitiveness of this work; to them I would say, “give it time and repeated patient listening". Having listened to Reich’s masterpiece hundreds of times during the past four decades (it is absolutely my favorite piece of music), I only recently realized why I find it so organically and elementally compelling. "18", in my view, follows a different and rarely trodden path. The work is "about " organic rhythms and dense layers of phased harmonics; it is "about" the human breath and tapestries of slowly evolving pulses that mimic heartbeats, chants, footfalls, and the thundering wheel-clicks of runaway trains.

"18" disregards the conventional narrative imperatives that characterize much of contemporary music; it tells no story, offers no clichéd characters, develops no plot twists or unresolved conflicts, and ultimately refuses to yield an emotionally satisfying and cathartic conclusion. Rather, "18" is a trance-inducing tone-poem, a sonic loom weaving fluid carpets of richly repetitive warps and woofs. Ensemble Signal’s spot-on interpretation here benefits from the astute direction of Brad Lubman, who has collaborated on projects with Steve Reich for the past two decades. As a result, this version of Reich’s signature work is perfect for getting lost (and enraptured) within.