Music for 18 musicians

Music for 18 musicians… that really was a game-changer. When i listen to it I can see interdependent swirling vortexes that spiral out into structures of the utmost complexity and beauty. I’m aware of the rhythmic/melodic inspiration he took from Balinese Gamelan, but in my opinion it’s still one of the most innovative compositions of the 20th century.
Here an exposition takes place, but it is not the lengthy, linear, tonal narrative you would find in the great symphonies, rather a gradual unveiling of some otherworldly told by aliens with a different sense of time. In a brief extract from the Sci-fi masterpiece Slaughterhouse 5, Kurt Vonnegut describes such an idea with an artisan’s precision,

All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just that way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.

Music for 18 musicians challenges our conception of time and our focus on melody. It is instinctive to want to follow melodies to their conclusion. And the great classical opuses exhibit the true scope for pleasure in doing so…. this piece does something different. One is challenged to follow melodies to their finish because they overlap, intertwining, running into each other, losing their boundaries, before emerging distinct. The piece’s coherence stems from the fact that it’s melodies are not complex atonal creations with odd intervallic leaps; more often than not they are 12 note phrases consisting of as little as 3 notes. These are aurally assimilable tenets of a larger structure that unravels across the temporal field. I suspect that the simplicity of these motifs enables the human brain and ears to decode more of the data that’s being generated simultaneously… in simpler words the instruments not in the melodic forefront are less obstructed than they would typically be; I wonder if that lets us hear more of the ensemble, more fully?

The use of winds/voices to define phrase lengths brings a unique humanity to a piece strange calculated piece, you can hear the influence of the 1970’s cassette reel phase techniques he was pioneering, and it’s all done with notation, weird staccato vocal motifs fuse with tongued clarinets as tuned percussion weaves in and out with strange permeating mantras . The piece extensively explores the psychoacoustic effects of different timbres echoing motifs, often only an 1/8th note apart. It invokes images of a zany man with big hair in the 1970’s staring in wonder at 2 giant cassette reels as they’re moving slowly out of sync…. sliding between information/noise.

I can understand if people hate it- it’s long, repetitive and weird…but listen to section 3a, is the subtle warping of pitch in the clarinet… the definition of the violin’s phrasing, the group dynamics, the implementation of instruments with varying attack/decay patterns and sonic personae. The instruments featured in the piece are: violin, cello, 2 clarinets doubling bass clarinet, 4 women’s voices, 4 pianos, 3 marimbas, 2 xylophones and metallophone (vibraphone with no motor).
I hear a lot of classical musicians disrespecting Steve Reich, stating it’s ‘child’s play’ or ‘monotonous drivel’…. however the great thing about music, whether it’s Prokofiev or Lady Gaga, is that it exists beyond the spheres of judgement. Judgement has no authority over music.
In Scorcese’s ‘Godfathers and Sons’, the late Pete Cosey (of Muddy Waters band) says “Course the critics are pissed off….they can’t write nothin‘.” If anyone on this planet new about music criticism, he did….. 1968’s ‘Electric Mud‘ received abject criticism when it came out… it’s now regarded as an album lightyears ahead of its time.
I feel music criticism is simply is a tool for categorisation, simplification and often more often than not, just plain old intellectual fornication. Which is fine… but it’s not creative, it’s not conducive unless it inspires the critic to look within, to see if they can innovate musically. Otherwise, it’s like you’re just shouting at the weather because you’re too afraid to go outside.
Steve Reich went outside… and what he saw, or maybe the way he saw is interwoven through the 9 sections of this music.

And some 35 years later, this piece still exists. Despite the critics, this music will keep inspiring new generations of musicians to explore minimalism, texture, instrumentation, rhythm, meter, phasing…. and to me it still sounds like something from the distant future.

This is it in the glorious depth of high definition audio.

I hope you dig it… or if you don’t, try and write something better.


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