Playing By Ear: ‘Music for 18 Musicians’

Clip 1: GVSU New Music Ensemble. CD Trailer for ‘Music for 18 Musicians’.

NPR Music did a great feature on Steve Reich’s ‘Music for 18 Musicians’. It’s said to be the Everest of his oeuvre, and now it’s three decades old. I’m reminded of a long night twenty years ago when I heard Reich and his ensemble at the Taft Theater in Cincinnati. Maybe they performed this or another piece for ten grand pianos. The effect was hypnotic. After the musicians stopped playing, the hall was suffused with lingering overtones. Everyone was transfixed, musicians and audience alike. You couldn’t call it silence, or a pause — it was the hum of the universe — and applause had to wait.

I went to this concert with Ken Simon and Scott Prairie. Maybe one of them remembers which piece we heard, although both will probably say such details are irrelevant, it’s all music.

The NPR story focuses on a hitherto unknown ensemble whose new recording of the minimalist classic was one of the best CDs of 2007:

Now more than three decades old, Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians has become an icon of 20th-century American music.

At almost an hour in length, the piece unfolds like a slowly shifting dream, with sections of repeated material ebbing and flowing around a cycle of 11 chords. It’s scored for strings, percussion, woodwinds and voices, and takes tremendous concentration on the part of the 18 players. To this day, the work is mainly performed by the composer and his loyal group of musicians.

It took courage, then, for a group of players at a small Midwestern college (not known for its music department) to mount a performance of Music for 18 Musicians — not just for their own amusement, but to play at the high-profile Bang on a Can Festival in New York City.

Under the direction of Bill Ryan, the New Music Ensemble at Grand Valley State University — amid the cornfields of western Michigan — practiced the music for nearly a year.

This is one of NPR’s web-extras with audio and video clips and other links. You can skip the public radio commercials (the oxymoron is intentional) and see the CD trailer on YouTube. See alsot newmusicensemble.org or innova.mu.

Encore: The GVSU New Music Ensemble reified Reich’s hypnotic polyrhythms into percussive hand-clapping. Reich’s ensemble did an encore similar to this in Cincinnati.

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