A landmark in 20th-century composition, Steve Reich’s hour-long Music for 18 Musicians (1976) cemented the place of minimalist music in the world of new music and marked a sea-change in musical composition. Scored for an ensemble of violin, cello, two clarinets alternating on bass clarinets, four pianos, three marimbas, two xylophones, vibraphone and maracas, Music for 18 Musicians is highly complex and precisely structured, and is characterised by a steady, unchanging rhythm that creates a hypnotic, even visceral effect on the listener.
An early work of Reich’s, Music for 18 Musicians is based on a cycle of eleven chords, from each of which a separate short piece of music is developed. A sequence of notes on the vibraphone signals the beginning of each new section, which seems to flow organically from the previous section because of the absence of any pause in the rhythm. To create a section, each chord is performed over several minutes and, in his notes accompanying the original ECM recording of the work (1978), Reich likens this form to the holding of a note in a cantus firmus, or the chant melody of Organum, an ecclesiastical composition by the 12th century French composer Pérotin. Reich’s composition may thus be likened to chant, and it can have a similarly mystical effect. Several of the sections feature a particular instrument and these solos illustrate the magic in Reich’s compositional approach whereby sequences of notes are gradually augmented and extended with additional notes – the sections featuring the xylophone, for example, especially demonstrate this additive process.
Reich indicates that there are two kinds of rhythms – the rhythm of the pianos and mallets, which is constant throughout, and the rhythms of the pulsing, breath-based clarinets and voices. The clarinets and voices are to take a full breath and sing or play as long as they can, while other instruments follow the breath patterns of the bass clarinet, introducing a human element into what may seem a mathematically engineered process.
Also significant are the textures and timbres generated by the shifting combinations of instruments. These evolving combinations create the effect of a canon and also of continual, steady flow or movement. The listener becomes attuned to the rhythm, over the top of which new motives and phrases emerge, creating a dense weave of sound.
Reich was interested in the psychic effects of music, and Music for 18 Musicians is highly cerebral, inviting a mediative suspension of thought while simultaneously demanding close concentration on the unfolding patterns and underlying structure. The key of A major gives the work an exhilarating, energising power, in contrast with the emotional nature of minor-key music, for example, of the Romantic era.
Music for 18 Musicians represented a significant step beyond Reich’s earlier use of phasing, achieving much greater structural and developmental sophistication. It was a radical development in music that influenced a generation of composers and performers, establishing an aesthetic entirely different from the musical aesthetics of previous generations.
The musical director for this performance was Vanessa Tomlinson, professor of music at Queensland Conservatorium, who performed here on xylophone, and who is an expert on the work, having first performed it at the University of California at San Diego in 1998. The work makes great demands of the musicians, who melded into cohesive and expert ensemble for this event. This very welcome Adelaide performance entranced the enthusiastic audience.