There was an immediate standing ovation following the premiere of Steve Reich’s ‘Music for 18 Musicians’ at Town Hall on April 24, and very few people remained in their seats. It is not surprising. Regardless of aesthetic orientation, few people can resist a performance as sharp as this one. In fact, few people have ever even heard a large ensemble deliver a long intricate work with such impeccable precision. Certainly no symphony orchestra can afford the kind of rehearsal time that this sort of playing requires, and it is rare that any chorus or instrumental group comes so together. And Reich’s musicians did it without a conductor.
‘Music for 18 Musicians’ is a good composition too, though different from earlier Reich works. Here he is not working with a single inevitable process, but rather with a sectional form. After a long introduction, which states 11 basic white-note chords, the music progresses through 11 contrasting sections based on these chords. The sections are separated by moments of relative inactivity, during which some performers shift instruments, and everyone gets ready for the 1976/barbara-benary-brings-java-to-jersey section. Then a player strikes a few notes on the metallophone and cues in the 1976/barbara-benary-brings-java-to-jersey section.
Throughout the 55-minute work, there is a steady stream of fast notes, played mostly on the marimbas and pianos. Some players played only the strong beats, some played only the offbeats, some overlaid tricky irregular rhythms, and no one ever seemed to be the slightest bit off. The tempo was about as steady as an Accutron watch. Meanwhile two clarinets, cello, violin, and four female singers filled in sustained tones or brought out specific melodic patterns.
When Reich 1976/meredith-monks-quarryiewed a segment of this work a year ago, I was surprised that it sounded so lush. It didn’t seem quite so lush at the premiere, and I suspect that he has changed some of the more mellow cello, clarinet, and metallophone lines he started out with, but the piece is still much warmer than his all-percussion works. The amplification is not especially loud, and some sections drift into extremely expressive minor-mode-like tonalities. The basic chord of the final section has an almost impressionistic quality to my ears.
But as in all Reich’s works, the greatest interest is rhythmic. I never became quite as involved in picking out rhythmic patterns as I do in his more hypnotic pieces. It was too frustrating. Just about the time I’d start to understand something, the music would shift to a new section. But I did pick up on patterns here and there, and I was particularly interested at one point as I began to follow a melody three notes long circling through a rhythm eight notes long, and always coming out different. Throughout the work, rhythmic patterns continually grow, shrink, and shift accents, always with admirable subtlety.
There is a great deal of craftsmanship here, not only in the rhythmic intricacies, but in the harmonies and instrumental colors as well. I suspect that the work would hold up well under repeated hearings, and all in all, it’s an excellent piece. So perhaps I should just end my review with that. But other considerations press me to add some additional thoughts, some of which would apply to Philip Glass as well.
Reich is in a special situation now, due to the success he has been having during the past few years. The bulk of his mature work is all available now internationally in the prestigious Deutsche Grammophon label, and Reich’s performing ensemble has appeared all over. At least in Europe, and perhaps here as well, he seems to be regarded as the main representative of the new wave of classical American music. So I find myself asking whether I can really support him on that level, and feel a strong reluctance.
Many other avant-garde genres are equally good, and it seems too bad that these are often over-shadowed by Reich’s sleek, well-marketed product. What about La Monte Young, who really started the whole hypnotic thing, and whose music takes a quiet more meditative form? What about ingenious electronic composers like Gordon Mumma or David Behrman? What about Max Neuhaus, Pauline Oliveros, Philip Corner, and others in Reich’s generation? Their work may not have the immediate impact of Reich’s, but it is ultimately at least as fresh and profound as his is.
And what about performer freedom? In a way, I think that is what bothers me most. Ever since those first indeterminate works in the early 1960s, one of the main precepts of the American avant-garde has been a concern for the individual, and a dislike for the regimented performing discipline that we inherited from Europe. There’s something very American about that, and it seems like an important value. If we have learned anything from those radical years, it seems that we should have learned to appreciate watching people making music without giving up their personal freedom. Reich grew out of all that, but somewhere along the line he gave it up. Now, as I watch Reich’s musicians going through their paces with such precision, I can’t help noticing that they look even more machine-like than the players in traditional orchestras do, despite the lack of a conductor.
None of this in any way contradicts the fact that Reich is a skillful composer, that ‘Music for 18 Musicians’ is a fine piece, and that the group’s ensemble precision is a rare achievement. But perhaps it will raise some doubts in the minds of those who have come to think of Reich as the American avant-garde composer.