Sunday, October 30, 2011

Steve Reich - Music For 18 Musicians (3 Versions)

Steve Reich - Music For 18 Musicians (ECM New Series, ECM 1129, 1978) (320)

Steve Reich - Music For 18 Musicians (New Recording) (Nonesuch Records, 7559-73448-2, 1998) (320)

Steve Reich - Ensemble Modern - Music For 18 Musicians (RCA, 09026686722, 1999) (256aac)

So, the original is an insanely good album.  It should be required listening.  As we learned here, there was a rerecording of the album, also presented here.  I haven't heard that one as much to be honest.  And I just heard about the last recording yesterday, so I haven't heard it yet.

While I usually try to stay on top of newer releases with this site, I'll admit that I often have to simply drop everything in the pile of things that I want to review and go back to hear a familiar sound. I want to pull a well-worn release off the shelf and know that I can put it in and find an hour of bliss. Over the course of the past week, I found myself doing it more than once with Music For 18 Musicians, and while many have already heard his name before and listened to his work, I decided that I would try to review this release, one of my favorite pieces of work by him, if only to expose one more person to its majesty.

Composed in 1976 by Reich, this is a piece that goes down as a classic in my view. Although some of his earlier work with tape manipulations now sounds a bit dated and simply doesn't hold up as well, the beauty of Music For 18 Musicians still sounds as fresh to me now as anything that I've heard lately. This particular release on Nonesuch, recorded in 1996 is actually about 11 minutes longer than the original composition, but that length really only adds to the bliss of the piece. At 14 tracks and almost 67 minutes of music, it's just over an hourlong excursion into what feels like a safer place.

Performed by musicians, just as the title states, it actually might fall into what many would consider 'trance' music. It's highly repetitive, and while it bears no relation to the crap being pedalled as trance music these days, it's nearly as hypnotic as any music you'll find. With vocals, stringed instruments, lots of percussive elements (vibraphone, gamelan, marimba, maracas), pianos, and clarinets, it's one of those pieces of music that you can trace back to as a starting point for not only individual artists, but genres as well. It blends non-western, classical, and even a touch of jazz for something that was original at the time, and still stands solidly on that ground.

With all this praise I'm heaping on this piece, I must warn that if you don't enjoy repetitive music, you probably won't appreciate this release quite as much. While it is repetitive, though, it's far from minimal (although it's grouped into that category often). Unfurling over the course of 11 different parts, as well as phasing pieces that lead into and end the overall composition, it breathes like something real and organic as each instrument and voice take their place with the harmony and again blend back down into the mix. It's constantly moving and shifting, and while there are moments of quieter transition, there are also ones of breathtaking splendor as melodies overlap and change speed while different instruments come into and out of focus. It's like taking several different minimal paintings printed on transparencies and subtly shifting them over one another to create new pieces as you see colors blend into one another and fold into something new each time.

Considering that the piece is one that's performed by actual people, the juxtaposition of the different elements is quite amazing (of course, imagining how you would program something like this electronically also staggers the mind), and as mentioned before, you can hear little bits of everyone from Tortoise to different electronic artists like Vladislav Delay and Gas (Mike Ink) having developed parts from it. While their were groundbreaking pieces both before and after it, it's one of those recordings that will envelope you if you allow it to. So, if you're a fan of modern electronic music or even post rock, you should probably hunt down this release and hear it at least once. If you can, simply stop doing everything else, pop it in the CD player and relax with it on a pair of headphones for the entirety of the release. You'll come to just under 70 minutes later when the CD stops spinning, and chances are you'll want to do it again sometime. I certainly do.
Info on rerecording:
"This new recording is eleven minutes longer than the original [ECM Records]" Music For 18 Musicians revisited by K. Robert Schwarz. Recorded October 1996 at the Hit Factory New York City, the piece was originally composed twenty years earlier in 1976.
A very good Amazon review on the Ensemble version:

I own all three recordings of Music For 18 Musicians; I suggest that for anyone who is truly interested in the work, owning all three is a must.

In order of preference for me, the recordings go ECM, RCA, and Nonesuch.

No recording of 18 quite captures the piece as it sounds live. (I've had the luck to see it twice with Steve Reich & Musicians at the San Francisco Symphony.) However, the ECM version comes close to duplicating the timbre of the real thing. To my ears, it sounds the most "live".

The RCA/Ensemble Modern recording is perhaps the best performed. Ensemble Modern emphasizes Reich's earlier philosophies about music as a process; they clearly delineate the various instruments and lines in the recording, and they properly accentuate the lead mallet lines. (I say "proper" because that's what it sounded like when I saw 18 performed live.) What this recording lacks in lush beauty, it gains in near-academic perfection.

The new Nonesuch recording was designed from the ground up to be a recording, not a live performance. Most instruments are close-mic'd, which gives the odd feeling of standing next to all of the instruments at the same time. I love it for its open spaces, surprising tempo, and stunning imaging of the mallet instruments. It is as lush and beautiful as the ECM recording, but I prefer the subtleties and pacing of the ECM more.       

discogs here and here and here
buy it here and here and here


  1. Thanks for sharing. Beautiful work, your blog. Thanks.

  2. Links are dead; would it it be possible to reupload them; thanks in advance ;)