40 Days of Rewind: Steve Reich – Music for 18 Musicians (1978)

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Composed between 1974 and 1976, Music for 18 Musicians was Steve Reich’s most ambitious work up to that point. Foregoing electronic instruments and much of the percussion section, the piece focusses on harmonisation, and its relation to melody. Reich said of Music for 18 Musicians, “There is more harmonic movement within the first five minutes…than in any other complete work of mine to date”.

Whilst only one piece, it is divided into sections. ‘Pulse’ I and II bookend Music for 18 Musicians, introducing the basis for the piece, and repeating it at the end. ‘Pulse I’ introduces chords individually, gradually building up until 11 are played and the ensemble returns to the first chord. Likewise, ‘Pulse II’ concludes the piece with repetition of the chord cycle. The body of the work is split into 11 further sections, one for each of the chords. Each of these sections holds the pulsing chord for five minutes whilst a small piece is constructed around it. These sub-pieces tend to follow an arching pattern, i.e. ABCDCBA, and elements and motifs from each repeat over the course of the entire piece surrounded by different melodies and instrumentation.

Minimalism and experimentalism often go hand-in-hand in contemporary classical music, and Music for 18 Musicians is no exception. Reich abandons the concept of a non-performing conductor, the musicians each taking audible cues from one another. The rhythm of the piece is dictated by the performers’ breaths, the duration of each pulse by the vocalists and clarinet players is the time that they can comfortably sustain from a full breath. Similarly, the signal to change within and between subsections is given by the metallophone, the instrument solely used at the beginning of a new bar as an indication.

‘Section III-A’ is a particular highlight, the woodwind section flits and dances atop jingling xylophones and jittering piano. ‘Section III-B’ Follows a similar growing pattern to ‘Pulse I’, every four bars pianos introduce an additional note in place of a rest. ‘Section VI’ is underpinned by a steady beat on the maracas, and pushes the ever oscillating woodwind and vocals to the fore.

Music for 18 Musicians is a masterclass in minimalism. From the subtle changes within limits, to the instruments mimicry and echoing themselves and one another, the piece manages to consistently entertain and in its creator’s own words “vary that which is in fact unchanging”. The result is that Music for 18 Musicians has had a huge influence, spreading much further than contemporary classical music to a significant impact on the house and techno world, genres that were not even in existence at its time of recording.

Music for 18 Musicians was released in 1978 via ECM Records. 

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