Monday, December 03, 2007

Listening to music for 18 musicians

At what point is the music, any music, secondary to the communal experience of hearing it? I found myself asking that as I left New England Conservatory's performance of Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians, with Reich on hand coaching and cheerleading. I'm still asking a few days later, listening to the Nonesuch recording of the piece. (misidentified on my Itunes, interestingly, as the ECM version.) As many of you reading this probably know, Reich's masterpiece consists of eleven chords spun in, through and around 18 musicians in a steady 3-pulse for about 65 minutes, give or take depending on the performers. (You can see an excerpt of the critically acclaimed recent GVSU version of the piece here) And while it is tremendously repetitive in one sense, the brilliance of the piece is that slight shifts in voicings, orchestration and rhythms then seem like dramatic events. As Darcy noted blogging the piece at Bang on a Can, there is a subtle drama that is enhanced by the seeming monotony, where little movements, both in the music and by the players, take on more significance. (I did hear one jaded conservatory sophomore afterwards complaining that nothing happened; there's always a few...)

It's easy, and apt, to talk about minimalist music, especially earlier minimalism, using words like "trancelike" and "hypnotic". However, I don't think it's especially useful in this case. Like so much great music before it, especially music in the Western classical tradition, it creates a world and invites you to live there for awhile. Isn't this what the great symphonic music of the 19th century does. Unlike at a Beethoven concert, there was someone in the back corner of the balcony doing a sort of wormlike variation of the robot dance for the first twenty minutes of the piece. No one seemed to mind...

I have a yoga teacher who, when he occasionally reads some quote in class, always invites the class to "let the words wash over you", rather than encouraging them to listen. When I was able to experience the piece this way, engaged in the music but not intellectualizing it at all, it was glorious, especially in a hall as acoustically marvelous as Jordan Hall, with a nearly full house of people, most as excited for the performance as I was, heightened the experience. Occasionally my left brain would kick in to figure out exactly what the last shift was, but it had the same effect on my listening as when the reel of a film falls off- I felt literally shoved out of the space I'd been in.

Back to the dancer for a moment- what he was doing seemed, oddly enough, to fit. When played well, and here it was, this piece grooves, especially in the middle when the piano takes on its most melodic, or to my ears gamelan-like activity (for lack of a better term. Clearly I haven't read any of the musicology on this piece since college). There are a couple of youtube clips of people choreographing to this piece, and for some modern dance vocabularies it's an obvious fit. There has been much made during his career on Reich's influence on electronica and western movements into "world music", and it's absolutely obvious if you sit and listen to one of his pieces live.


Gregory Dudzienski said...

Hi Pat,
Just found your blog...very cool stuff. I'm glad you mentioned the idea of groove. I was first exposed to Reich when I was an undergrad back in 1990. Vermont Counterpoint was my point of entry which took me to New York Counterpoint, and finally to Music for 18. As many of my fellow students blanched at my enthusiasm (as you say, there are always some) I came to realize that the time feel and groove that is inherent to Reich's music is as visceral as Elvin or Tony Wiliams. I don't mean to sound all ivory tower here, but I have never understood how intelligent, well versed players can be unmoved by his music.

Thanks for linking to my blog (IAJE stuff) and I'll be reading your stuff often,

Gregory Dudzienski

Elijah B said...

Hi Pat,

The dancer in the back corner was I! I didn't think anyone noticed! He, heee. Anyway, I agree that this piece seriously grooves. I've been listening and dancing to it for years now and consider it one of my favorite Reich pieces. I used to play in the Boston Afrobeat Society and loved dancing to such incredible dance music. I feel there's a similar magnetic pull to move the body in 18 musicians. There's something about the sheer physicality of the interlocking rhythms that inspires my body to suddenly try coordinating in that way as well. However, 18 musicians also manages to stir my emotions as well. There's a 2 note melody that appears in the woodwinds and strings at about 17' 30''. It waves and undulates and is harmonized in a way that for some reason creates such a sense of longing in me. I've often wept during this section.

Anyway, tghanks for the great post and I'll see your around the yoga studios!