March 3, 2019
by John Frayne
On Feb. 16, as part of the Sonic Illinois series, Steve Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians” was performed by two guest groups, Eighth Blackbird and Third Coast Percussion, (both from Chicago) and nine local performers, making it 19 musicians.
This 1976 composition has a cult reputation for being a landmark in the movement usually called minimalism. As usual, with cult pieces, it is frequently admired, even worshipped, by the cult members, somewhat to the bewilderment of the general run of classical music concertgoers. The claims made for the Reich piece are that it, and other minimalist pieces, upended the expectation of what a piece of music should sound like. Put bluntly, one expects a Beethoven work to start, and then to do something, go somewhere, and, one hopes, arrive somewhere.
That is not what happens in the Reich piece. It begins with xylophone players beating out a simple phrase and something like that will go on for over an hour. To be sure, Reich has a structure of opening and closing “Pulses,” and 11 sections in between, and indeed something in the form of harmonic change does happen. But compared to a traditional piece, it is the difference between watching a running stream, and watching a glacier. True, they do both move.
For me, the secret of a minimalist piece is that, after inducing a near hypnotic trance by constant repetition, any change seems monumental. In this Reich piece, one player, at the vibraphone, signaled a change by beating out a simple phrase, at times sounding to me like the Westminster Chimes, which led to the change in harmony, and at times a change in which another cluster of performers would take the lead in beating out the basic rhythm. Although the fundamental sound of the piece came from mallet instruments (xylophones, marimbas, a vibraphone and maracas) there was a cluster of four pianos, and clarinets, flutes, a violin, a cello, and voices. The sound level of instruments and voices was apparently modified electronically.
As an observer, but not a devotee, of the minimalist movement, I can say that the performance was nothing like I had ever heard before, that the rhythm held me in thrall, and I wondered when it was going to end. All the musicians on stage played with dedicated enthusiasm. Thanks are due to those who organized this event. I now know what an hour with Steve Reich is like.
Let me say that the reaction of the audience in the Foellinger Great Hall, including a large number of students in the balcony, was just this side of ecstatic.