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A Guide to Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians
Music for 18 Musicians is perhaps Steve Reich’s most popular, if not most important, piece of music. Composed between the ages of 38-40, Music for 18 Musicians premiered at New York City’s Town Hall on April 24th, 1976, nearly five decades ago.
In 1978, the first recording of the work was released on ECM Records, a record label dedicated to releasing contemporary classical and jazz music.
Defining characteristics of Music for 18 Musicians piece include an ethereal, trance vibe, pulsating bass clarinets, a consistent beat, and slowly developing chord progressions unfolding over the length of approximately one hour.
Steve Reich’s genre-defining minimalist compositional tool, phasing, is demonstrated in full force here. We will dive deeper into this seminal tool and exactly how it was used in this piece of music.
Keep reading to find out more about this piece, its history. At the end of the article, we will post a fantastic rendition online you can watch.
To fully understand Music for 18 Musicians, let’s dive into who Steve Reich was, his background, and how he came to write this important work of art.
Born in 1936, Steve Reich belongs to the same class of minimalist composers as John Adams, Philip Glass, Terry Riley, and La Monte Young.
Like his contemporaries, Reich received a formal education in a conservatory setting. While his contemporary John Adams received a traditional university education at Harvard, Steve Reich and his colleague Philip Glass received Master’s degrees from the Juilliard School.
Reich studied with several of history’s most important 20th-century composers, including Darius Milhaud and Luciano Berio, at Mills College.
Reich’s compositions before the age of 27 are not published, nor will they ever be; Reich’s trademark style became cemented in his early 30s when he created the work It’s Gonna Rain.
Unusual in that it was scored for no performing instruments, It’s Gonna Rain is a composition for a tape! Reich takes the phrase “It’s Gonna Rain” from a sermon in the tape, places it into multiple tape loops, then has the loops go in and out of sync, which creates the “phasing effect.”
A few years after writing his first “minimalist” compositions incorporating phasing, Steve Reich took a 5-week trip to Africa to learn Ghanaian drumming.
Here, we see his influences in Ghanaian drumming and his technique “phasing” pave the way to write a piece of music like Music for 18 Musicians.
Dissatisfied with the norm in contemporary classical music at the time, which was twelve-tone/serial music, Steve Reich decidedly chose to compose music at once redefining as well accessible to classical and non-classical music audiences.
His influences included classical composers and the works of jazz musicians such as Ella Fitzgerald and English singer Alfred Deller.
Composition – Analysis
Music for 18 Musicians is based on a cycle of eleven different chords, not “functionally” related to each other through any traditional tonal analysis.
In the opening movement, Pulses, Steve Reich slowly unfolds through all eleven chords, introducing them in sequential order, before moving to the aptly titled Section 1. Each section between 1 and 11 is based on just one unique chord.
Reich incorporates his trademark phasing idiom throughout the music, having two separate melodies go in and out of sync with each other. This creates the effect of “unison canons,” where a musical round (think of Row Row Your Boat) takes shape.
Other compositional devices frequently incorporated include rhythmic augmentation and diminution, where musical ideas are stated in their principal form, then literally contracted or expanded after several repetitions of the principal idea.
Additionally, the Gamelan and Balinese styles of African drumming are prominent.
In Reich’s very own program notes, he says the following about his Eastern musical influences:
“Changes from one section to the next, as well as changes within each section are cued by the metallophone (vibraphone with no motor) whose patterns are played once only to call for movements to the next bar, much as in Balinese Gamelan a drummer will audibly call for changes of pattern in West African Music.”
The instrumentation for this work is unusual, not fitting into any traditional ensemble.
The instrumentation is a mouthful! Here it is:
It is scored for Violin, cello, three female voices, two pianos, a third piano doubling a maraca, a marimba doubling a maraca, three additional marimbas doubling xylophones, a metallophone doubling a piano, a piano doubling a marimba, a marimba doubling a xylophone and piano, two clarinets doubling bass clarinets, and a female voice doubling piano.
Because of the intense instrumentation requirements, it is ironically advised for more than 18 musicians to perform the piece live.
Music for 18 Musicians has received universal acclaim since it was composed.
Reviewing the reissue by ECM recordings in 2016, Pitchfork Magazine awarded a rare 9 out of 10 grade, noting that while Reich in his younger career had few champions, he is now a Pulitzer winner who hangs out with the likes of Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood.
Many publications have given the composition or recording a perfect score, including AllMusic, The Guardian, and music criticism website Sputnikmusic.
Reviews of the work from the 70s were also favorable, with Rolling Stone Magazine as well as legendary music critic Robert Christgau both giving the piece a favorable rating.
Despite its extensive, unusual instrumentation, the piece is among Steve Reich’s most performed compositions. In particular, universities frequently program the work as they have all the various percussion instruments and trained musicians required to perform the music.
At the premiere in New York City’s Town Hall in 1976, one of the audience members was none other than pop music legend David Bowie. Bowie and Reich became friends, with Bowie counting himself as an artist influenced by Steve Reich.
Thousands of musicians have been inspired by Music for 18 Musicians and other works by Steve Reich.
Notable songwriters, producers, and composers who have cited Reich as an influence include songwriter Sufjan Stevens, electronic music duo The Orb, and Bang On a Can founders David Lang, Julia Wolfe, and Michael Gordon.
Outside of music, many non-musical artists have counted themselves as being influenced by Steve Reich. They include sculptor and photographer Bruce Nauman as well as choreographers Jerome Robbins and Douglas Lee.
The original recording of the work is widely considered the definitive edition, the 1978 release by ECM Recordings.
While the ECM recording is classic, our pick for the best recording of the piece is the 1998 Nonesuch recording. Recorded with high-end pianos and digital technology, the 1998 recording is loud, clear, and performed with virtually perfect execution.
However, if you choose to listen to the original recording, a remastered reissue was released in 2016; modern audio technology brings the original recording to life. This particular recording has historical significance as it was performed by none other than Steve Reich’s ensemble.
Several other worthy recordings have been created since the Nonesuch released in 1998.
One particularly notable interpretation was recorded by the Grand Valley State New Music Ensemble, released on the Innova music label in October of 2007. Comprised of prodigious young student musicians studying at GVSU, the ensemble faithfully and accurately performed Music for 18 Musicians to the satisfaction of none other than the composer himself, who called it “gorgeous and stunningly accurate.”
This recording is particularly notable because the GVSU music department is not well-known, yet the players perform it at a skillful, accurate level.
In 2015, Ensemble Signal released a recording of Music for 18 Musicians, which has been streamed over 3 million times on Spotify alone.
More Music By Steve Reich
If you enjoy Music for 18 Musicians, here are several recommendations for other great works by America’s greatest living composer.
Different Trains, a work for multiple string quartets and pre-recorded narration. This particular piece is significant as it has a special connection with The Holocaust. It is widely regarded among Reich’s most essential and seminal compositions.
Double Sextet, a work idiomatic to Reich’s “late period” style, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009. The music was written for contemporary music ensemble Eighth Blackbird.
Piano Phase, an impressive work for two pianos that are phasing in and out sync with each in the most literal way possible, is another excellent piece in Reich’s repertoire.
Clapping Music, an exciting work scored for two percussionists…who are doing nothing but clapping their hands in and out of sync with each other.
Electric Counterpoint, scored for a guitarist performing over a pre-recorded track. The music is buoyant and sounds like a cross between lighthearted new age and contemporary classical music.