29 November 2013

Steve Reich - Music For Eighteen Musicians

You may have an idea in your head of what minimalist music is like. I had one, too. My friend and I would joke about 4′33″ and although we treated it as something of a joke, comparing stories of different performances, it would be nice to say we understood what the whole thing was about. We didn't. We assumed it was a musical joke, and it was only later that I realised that there was a purpose behind the composition, and while it may not have [harmony], [melody] or [rhythm], there was intent to produce meaning, and such intent alone is sufficient to produce a work of art, as long as you're in on the joke.

I'm drifting... let's get back to the popular perception of minimalism with Philip Glass. He's not unknown, and most mentions of Glass focus generally on the repetitive quality of his more-repetitive works. South Park featured a spookily-accurate rendition of Philip Glass at one point, making fun of Einstein On The Beach, with dense arpeggios and the sustained, pumping chords that Glass often uses. It was a pleasure, many years ago, to meet someone who was familiar with Philip Glass. 'Oh, yeah,' he said casually. 'We'd get stoned and each do a different bit. One of us would do the 'biddly-biddly' up and down parts, someone else would do the 'pah pah pah-pah-pah' bits and the other person would recite important sounding snippets over the top.' I wished to take part, in my heart of hearts, and not just for the chance to try some drugs...

I'm listening to Steve Reich as we speak, having reached his music through a tortuous series of steps involving Sufjan Stevens. A colleague was torturing some children with excessively repetitive background music as they read quietly, and my ears pricked up. 'What is it?' I asked, and the reply 'Sue Fjarn-Stephens' did nothing to illuminate me as to this new, obviously Finnish composer. A little research later, and several hundred previews of various songs on iTunes, and it turned out I didn't really like Sufjan Stevens at all; I'd just hit on the one song that was really evocative of Steve Reich and that was the true holy grail. I continued to seek...

Music For 18 Musicians is what I discovered. Repetitive beyond words, but endlessly changing. Organic, rhythmic and reminiscent of Musica Poetica by Carl Orff. Hints of Glass, and hints of Orff combine into something wonderful. Pianos phase, and metallophones chime, and human voices repeatedly vocalise.

Music For Eighteen Musicians was composed by Steve Reich between 1974 and 1976. It's as old as me. It's based around a cycle of eleven chords, and it's beautiful.

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