Thursday, September 14, 2017

Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians: Difference in Focus


The Center for 21st Century Music welcomes Ensemble Signal on September 19 for a performance of Steve Reich’s concert-length Music for 18 Musicians. Please note that the concert begins at the later-than-usual time of 9pm; it will be preceded by a talk by Signal’s co-artistic directors Brad Lubman and Lauren Radnofsky at 8:15pm. Previously, this blog examined long-standing collaborative relationships that led to the concert: between Signal and Steve Reich, and between UB’s music department and the composer. In this post, I introduce the piece itself and contextualize it within a broader history of minimalist music.


Completed in 1976, Music for 18 Musicians is often understood as a turning point within Reich’s compositional development, as a pivot from his strictly-composed, experimental early works to his more conventionally “musical” later works. It also functioned as a pivot in Reich's reputation, catapulting him to widespread renown within both art music and pop music worlds—orchestral commissions followed it, while the ECM recording of the piece sold over 10,000 copies and a live performance of the piece sold out the New York nightclub The Bottom Line. 

To understand where the piece came from, it is productive to consider the intensive earlier musical investigations of Reich and fellow minimalists. Historically, minimalism could be understood as an attempt to negate tonal modes of listening through the use of a limited palette of musical material. While numerous composers of the 1950s (John Cage, Milton Babbitt, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Iannis Xenakis) tried to challenge tonal listening habits by expanding and exhausting bandwidths of material, the younger minimalists attempted to achieve a similar end result through opposite means. If the former composers used discontinuity to overwhelm listeners’ capacities for syntactic listening, the latter use repetition and prolongation to underwhelm this mode of listening, instead encouraging a listening focused on the here and now of live performance.

The degree zero of early minimalism might be LaMonte Young’s X for Henry Flynt (1960), in which a heavy sound or cluster is repeated uniformly, regularly, and for a long period. This is music in extreme close up; there is no possibility of zooming out to orient oneself through anything resembling musical syntax. The piece’s restricted space simultaneously closes and opens: it impedes the possibility of tonal listening, but activates intensified focus on the particulars of the repeated sound’s envelope and spectrum, its interaction with acoustic space, and its status in listeners’ perception and memory. Two successive repetitions of the sound are never identical; the piece frames repetition as a guise for focused perception of subtle differences. Was the most recent repetition of the sound different from the last? If so, did I merely perceive it as being different? In this case, did my ever-changing memory bank of sounds play a role in reframing my perception? In encountering this piece, listeners listen to their own listening. The music does not have “objective” content that exists independently of the act of listening, as in tonal music; its content is the act of listening. Thus while listening in tonal music requires decoding "objective" content; listening in X for Henry Flynt invites open-ended exploration of ambiguous boundary spaces—between same and different, between sound object and perception, and between perception and memory. These broad parameters of listening pertain to much later minimalist music.


For early minimalist composers Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Tony Conrad, and Young, a key challenge was that of orchestrating duration. How can the composer “keep the ball in the air” without resorting to tonal approaches to time? How long must repetition and/or prolongation proceed to disorient tonal listening expectations; at what point does an aesthetically unproductive boredom set in? How can the composer create decisive shifts of perspective even while maintaining the continuity necessary to keep listening in the here and now?

Terry Riley (a former UB Creative Associate) answered these questions with bottom-up variation processes applied to looped melodic cells, while Young and Tony Conrad (a former UB professor) answered these questions through harmony based on resonance. For the younger minimalists Reich and Glass, these procedures perhaps too closely resembled traditional “composerly” decision making, and yet at the same time may have seemed quite arbitrary. In the mid to late 1960s, both Reich and Glass both sought out deterministic algorithmic processes that could determine the unfolding of melodic/rhythmic cells.


While Glass worked with processes of melodic growth and decay, Reich worked with a stricter, deterministic method, focusing on “phasing”—of gradually moving two identical sonic loops out of phase, incrementally changing the phase difference until the material comes back into phase with itself. This provided a strikingly economical way of encouraging listeners to listen to a simple, short sonic object with perpetually changing focus. As Reich explained in his essay “Music as a Gradual Process,” the anonymous, controlling nature of these processes appealed to him; their transparent nature allowed them to shift attention away from syntax and related tonal categories, towards the “impersonal, unintended, psycho-acoustic by-products of the intended process.”

Reich's phasing pieces first employed recorded samples of voices--It’s Gonna Rain (1965) and Come Out (1966)--and then later used live instrumentalists. After working exclusively with phasing for five years, he developed additional ways to vary fixed cells of material: “gradually substituting beats for rests (or rests for beats) within a constantly repeating rhythmic cycle,” “the gradual changing of timbre while rhythm and pitch remain constant.” These techniques feature prominently in Drumming, where they allow the composer to explore a concert-length duration.


In Music for 18 Musicians, Reich further expands his collection of variation processes, allowing for greater scope and flexibility in varying fixed rhythmic and melodic cells. Notably, certain more "conventional" musical possibilities excluded from his previous music take on a prominent role in this piece: harmony, dynamics, and core orchestral instruments (violin, cello, clarinet, bass clarinet). The piece employs the largest ensemble Reich had used to date—his trademark keyboard instruments constitute the core of the ensemble (6 percussionists on marimba, xylophone, and vibraphone without motor and 4 pianists), augmented by melodic instruments (violin, cello, 2 clarinets/bass clarinets) and voices (4 female voices).

Like Reich’s earlier work, Music for 18 is built around a central melodic/rhythmic cell, introduced after the piece's introductory section. (This cell is rhythmically identical to that used in Reich’s earlier piece Clapping Music.) This cell, like a similar one used in Drumming, is 12 pulses long; beneath its surface syncopations, it poses a deeper ambiguity to listeners: is the cell as a whole divided in 3 (3 groups of 4 pulses) or 4 (4 groups of 3 pulses)? While in earlier works, Reich presents traces of two incompatible ways of metrically interpreting a rhythmic cell, in Music for 18, the cell is accompanied by sustaining instruments alternating between two harmonies; the timing of harmonic changes momentarily tips the scales towards a single metric interpretation of the figure.


Indeed, harmony is more to the fore in Music for 18 than in any prior Reich piece. Broadly, the work uses sonorities reminiscent of tonal harmony but decontextualizes them from directional syntactic implications through frozen non-chord tones, unusual registral orderings, lengthy prolongation, and by oscillating between pairs of non-functionally-related chords. While in the domain of rhythm, the work explores contrasting metric interpretations of a 12-pulse rhythmic cell, in the domain of harmony, the work explores contrasting harmonic interpretations of a melody built from the tones of the A major scale. Each of the work’s 11 sections is based on a limited chord or harmonic field, each proposing a unique pitch center orienting the tones of the A major scale: section 1 implies D Lydian, section 2 B Dorian, section 3 F# Aeolian, and so on. (The sequence of 11 chords is also played at the work’s beginning and end, animated with regular pulses.)


Significantly, where Reich's earlier pieces approached form as the gradual unfolding of a linear process (i.e. phasing), form in Music for 18 is more exploratory and flexible, presenting a non-teleological sequence of perspectives on a common rhythmic/melodic object. Music for 18 thus evinces a broader aesthetic shift in Reich's work: while the early phasing pieces use deterministic processes to uncover possibilities that might elude a more conventional composerly intuition, Music reintroduces some of these considerations into the new approaches to structure and listening developed in the earlier works.

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