“music for 18 musicians (pulses)” – steve reich (1978)


I feel really fortunate for living in a city where I have a lot of musical outlets.  I volunteer for two great music non-profits, a community radio station and a music school, and there are a ton of venues to explore what’s hot in the local or underground scene.  Chicago is a musical town.  Even the name itself sounds quite lyrical.  You can find anything you want in this city, so there is no excuse for being bored and not trying anything new.

I’ve mentioned a few times in this blog where I get bored by popular music.  I’m a busy guy and, naturally, get into habits where I listen to the same stuff over and over and over again until it fatigues me.  And that happens to a lot of people.  Though, during these times when I’m feeling a little bored by what is around me, that’s when I find some fresh and exciting and new to me.

Last week, I met up with a friend of mine.  He was one of the first people I met in Chicago when we worked together briefly for the same employer.  He’s a guy who likes musical exploration often listening to jazz, world music, and modern compositions.  He had invited me to attend a concert at Northwestern University in Evanston.  Their contemporary music ensemble and percussion ensemble were performing the music of Steve Reich.  Reich was going to be in attendance and interviewed during intermission since this concert was a program honoring him winning the Bienen School’s prestigious Michael Ludwig Nemmers Prize in Music Composition.

The ensembles were comprised of Northwestern students.  The first piece they performed was a section from Reich’s Clapping Music and even Reich joined in.  This involved nearly 20 people clapping cyclical rhythms and was absolutely mesmerizing to watch.  Next, the students settled at various instruments and performed d sections from his composition City Life.  During the interview, Reich talked about how City Life was an homage to his hometown of New York.  The piece featured violin, flute, piano, and audio samples from street noise and NYC firefighters.

City Life and Clapping Music were both performed during the first half of the performance that night.  After intermission, the second half would be dedicated to playing his 1978 composition Music for 18 Musicians in its entirety.  The piece is roughly 56 minutes and the 18 parts are (1) violin, (2) cello, (3-5) three female voices, (6-7) two pianos, (8) piano with maracas, (9) marimba with maracas, (10-12) three marimbas and xylophones, (13) metallophone with piano, (14) piano and marimba, (15) marimba with xylophone and piano, (16-17) two clarinets with bass clarinets, and (18) female voice with piano.  Interestingly enough, Reich warns that more than 18 musicians may be needed.  However, there were only 18 Northwestern students performing the piece and most of them did double, and even triple, duty when it came to playing instruments.  The composition is based on a cycle of eleven chords with a small piece dedicated to each chord.  After each chord cycle, the piece returns to the original cycle.

It was absolutely mesmerizing to watch these students play these cycles.  I couldn’t wrap my head around the time, dedication, and talent it takes to perform this piece let alone any minimalist piece in the vein of Reich’s contemporaries like Philip Glass.  The constant repetition and the small variations in each section take an insane amount of memory and concentration. But what was funny was that these students were grooving to the music.  They made it seem so effortless.  I was absolutely amazed by their skill.  I’m currently learning guitar, but that’s nothing compared to what these students can do.  Kudos to them.

While Music for 18 Musicians is one whole composition and should be listened to it’s entirety, alas, this is not a blog dedicated to whole albums.  One could argue that a song by contemporary pop or rock artist could be a section of a larger work of art, but this blog is dedicated to songs.  Or, in the case of modern music ensemble compositions, then one section.

Music for 18 Musicians begins and ends with the original chord cycle  called “Pulses” each lasting between five to six minutes.  After the “Pulses” introduction, “Section I” kicks in and you get the first chord cycle change.  Listen closely and try to discern the role each instrument and musician play in this piece. “Pulses” sets the tone for framework for the rest of the performance.  To start anywhere other than from the beginning would be a disservice in appreciating the proceeding sections. In fact, give it several listens because this is an amazing work of art.

David Bowie listed as one of his 25 favorite albums.  If that doesn’t convince you, then nothing will. Take some time and discover music unfamiliar to you or outside of your comfort zone.  There’s a lot of great stuff to explore and you may just find something you’ll never forget.