Sunday, 28 June 2020

Steve Reich ‎– Music For 18 Musicians (1978)

Style: Post-Modern, Minimal, Contemporary
Format: CD, Vinyl
Label: ECM Records

1.   Pulse – Sections I-X – Pulse

Cello – Ken Ishii
Clarinet, Bass Clarinet – Richard Cohen, Virgil Blackwell
Marimba, Maracas – Gary Schall
Marimba, Xylophone – Bob Becker, Glen Velez, Russ Hartenberger
Marimba, Xylophone, Piano – David Van Tieghem
Metallophone, Piano – James Preiss
Piano – Nurit Tilles, Steve Chambers
Piano, Maracas – Larry Karush
Piano, Marimba, Composed By, Liner Notes – Steve Reich
Violin – Shem Guibbory
Voice – Elizabeth Arnold, Pamela Fraley
Voice, Piano – Jay Clayton
Mixed By – Rudolph Werner, Klaus Hiemann, Steve Reich
Producer, Recording Supervisor – Rudolph Werner

Music for 18 Musicians makes no efforts to obscure the methods behind its construction. As such, it reveals a wealth of mysteries never notated on the printed page. The piece is scored for violin, cello, 2 clarinets doubling bass clarinet, 4 women’s voices, 4 pianos, 3 marimbas, 2 xylophones and metallophone (vibraphone with no motor). With his characteristic attention to detail, Reich utilizes these instruments not necessarily for their evocativeness, but for the unique and varied ways in which their timbres can be blended in a nearly hour-long wash of sound. Calling this “minimalism” would be unfair both to Reich and to the musicians among whom he makes this demanding journey. There is a sense of movement here that is both linear and multidirectional. I say this not for the sake of verbosity, but because Reich’s notecraft commits to its own agenda while latching on to so many others along the way. 
The piece begins with a seamless blend of piano and mallet instruments threading its full length like a living metronome. Joining this is a chorus of breaths from human voices and winds. The interweaving of these substantial strands reinforces the compositional density, like marrow and nerves cohering into a spinal c(h)ord of decidedly aural design. At the risk of belaboring this analogy, I venture to see this piece as one active body in which each instrument writes the genetic code of its musical biology. This dynamic is further heightened by the presence of vocal utterances. Although these function as egalitarian extensions of manufactured instruments, they lend fragility to the underlying spirit of the music at hand. These voices rise and fall, slowly replaced by clarinets as if one and the same. 
Sudden changes in rhythm serve to reconfigure our attention to the intervention of the composer’s hand: just as we are being lulled into a sense of perpetuity, akin to a natural cycle studied from afar, we are reminded that what we are listening to has been contrived at the whim of a single human mind. Far from undermining the piece, this awareness invites us to share in its re-creation through the very act of listening. Like much of Reich’s music, Music for 18 Musicians is nothing if not accommodating. Rather than patronize or proselytize, it lays itself bare. This brackets Music for 18 Musicians off from much of the histrionic art music in vogue at the time of its creation (1974-76). One could argue that it is scientific in its approach to structure. I prefer to see it as simply honest. 
The recording quality of this album is ideally suited to its subject matter. There is a sense of “clusteredness” throughout, so that the performers never stray too far from the nexus of their unity, while also providing just enough breathing room (the performers’ lung capacities determine the length of sonic pulses throughout) for individual elements to shine. Most of the mixing, as it were, is done live through the sheer skill of Reich’s assembly of dedicated musicians, and requires meticulous attentiveness on the part of the recording engineer to highlight that complex interplay without overpowering the core. A beautiful and compelling landmark achievement.
Tyran Grillo / ECM Reviews

Steve Reich - Ensemble Signal, Brad Lubman ‎– Music For 18 Musicians (2015)

Style: Post-Modern, Minimal, Contemporary
Format: CD
Label: Harmonia Mundi

01.   Pulses
02.   Section I
03.   Section II
04.   Section III A
05.   Section III B
06.   Section IV
07.   Section V
08.   Section VI
09.   Section VII
10.   Section VIII
11.   Section IX
12.   Section X
13.   Section XI
14.   Pulses

Composed By – Steve Reich
Vibraphone – Peter Martin
Violin – Olivia De Prato
Cello – Lauren Radnofsky
Clarinet – Ken Thomson, Bill Kalinkos
Ensemble – Ensemble Signal
Maracas – James Deitz
Xylophone – Owen Clayton Condon, Robert Dillon
Voice – Martha Cluver, Caroline Shaw, Mellissa Hughes, Kirsten Sollek
Marimba – Doug Perkins, Bill Solomon, David Skidmore, Robert Dillon, James Deitz, Brad Lubman
Piano – David Friend, Lisa Moore, Red Wierenga, Peter Martin, David Skidmore, Thomas Rosenkranz,
Ensemble Signal Project Producer – Lauren Radnofsky
Produced By, Mixed By, Mastered By – Michael Riesman

In May, New York’s Ensemble Signal released one of a very few commercial recordings of Music for 18 Musicians, composer Steve’s Reich’s seminal work of minimalism from the mid-’70s. Signal, founded by Lauren Radnofsky and Brad Lubman in 2008, have toured the world, released five recordings, and received wide acclaim for their vitality and precision. Here, the group reproduces fellow New Yorker Steve Reich’s 1978 release on ECM with impeccable fidelity. The work contains eleven “Sections”, bookended by two movements called “Pulses”. The orchestration comprises of violin, cello, female vocals, pianos, maracas, marimbas, xylophones, metallophone, clarinets, and bass clarinets. Based wholly on an eleven-chord cycle, the work explores the pulsating auditory sensation caused by the onset and location of the various pitches in space. Built on meticulous repetitions, the work concerns itself only with what’s pure and right, musically speaking. 
While most music assumes the task of finding home -- that note or chord that ties things up and makes the makes the whole journey worthwhile --Music for 18 Musicians finds home at the start, and never leaves. Every subsequent movement comes as a resolution you never knew was needed. Any purer, and you’d be listening to an infinitely sustained, spectrum-spanning major chord played by a million hand-holding citizens of the world. While the work cannot be described as devoid of conflict, it tenses and relaxes so subtly that even the tension is relaxation by the standards of most other music. Like Terry Riley’s In C, a minimalist masterpiece of a decade prior, layers are added and removed with such care that any change at all is given the utmost respect. In the first notes of “Pulses”, the work materializes with stunning clarity. Instruments come into focus immediately, sounding like a team of archers firing a single target: sometimes they all hit a single spot, other times in perfect, geometric formation. Other times still, one arrow splits another, cleanly and silently: a perfect and an instantaneous arrival coupled with a quiet and unassuming departure. 
Over the first few sections, the piece builds from meditations on single notes and chords, its passages formed by simple addition and subtraction, crescendo and decrescendo. It’s music that couldn’t offend your sensibilities if you wanted it to. Baths of harmonies cycle over and over again; melodies slowly grow longer and stronger through the many cycles, never over- or under-asserting themselves. Instruments claw their way in from beneath to emerge and eventually subsume others, briefly take their turn as lead, and blend back into the mix. Bright and airy, the vocals blend seamlessly, and the bass clarinets saw gently as if tracing a fine piece of wood. With “Section 5” comes a more prominent change in the form of a wonderful new piano theme, and with “Section 11”, a welcome variation on an original theme, simultaneously foreign and strangely familiar. Throughout the hour-long experience, the piece never once grows uncomfortable with itself, never falters or questions its path: “The way is straight and true. Just follow yourself,” a sign tells you. “Okay, sign, I will,” you say to yourself. And you do. 
The whole thing feels very universal. It blends musical styles and cultures to the point that Music for 18 Musicians transcends style and culture. At the roots of this work are patterns, the very musical traditions of earth: the frameworks of folk, pop, and classical musics. This music is easy to appreciate because its experimentation remains firmly within the bounds of structure and intuition. Objects interact in compositionally governed ratios, instantly clear and recognizable—the perfect soundtrack for a child as he or she lays awake, pondering what it is to become someone. 
In a sense, the ensemble’s work is a difficult one to evaluate. With such an immensely challenging piece to perform, the ensemble deserves commendation for even trying, and indeed, its rendition adheres to the original miraculously—no need for creative embellishment. In this sense, there’s not much to say about Ensemble Signal’s particular recording, except that it’s flawless—in pitch, in volume, in timing. Furthermore, given the technology of the day, Signal produce an even cleaner recording than 1978’s. And perhaps here lie both its strength and weakness. It’s tempting to describe Music for 18 Musicians as otherworldly or inhuman, but perhaps it’s just not about anything human. It conveys a message neither political nor social but rather scientific and aesthetic. It’s music about patterns, and here, that’s quite refreshing.
Noah Harrison / popMATTERS