Here’s how Alex Ross, in his fantastic book The Rest Is Noise, describes Steve Reich‘s 1976 minimalist masterpiece, Music for 18 Musicians:
The premiere took place at New York’s Town Hall on April 24, 1976. Here the fascination of rhythm is joined to a comparably sophisticated drama of harmony: at the core of this piece is a cycle of eleven chords, each of which underpins a section of two to seven minutes in length. Early on, bass instruments touch repeatedly on a low D, giving the feeling that this is the work’s fundamental level. But in Section V, the midpoint of the structure, the bass clarinets and cello lower the floor from D to C-sharp — a crucial alteration in the physical space of the music. The harmony sinks toward F-sharp or C-sharp minor, and rugged six-note figures burrow in. A similar change in the weather darkens Section IX, which is almost expressionistic in its stabbing intensity. Only at the end do bright D and A-majorish chords clear the air.
Ross’s writing here differs from his treatment of most other works in the book, which aims to allow his readers to imagine the sounds he’s describing. Here the description is almost clinical, and I don’t think it’s an accident. This is Ross at his most minimal, perhaps to emphasize Reich’s precision. But the minimalism he’s describing is also incredibly lush, and it’s strange that he doesn’t spend more time conveying the feelings Reich’s piece conveys or even the ways in which it was received.
[You can, however, in the web supplement Ross provides, listen to bits and pieces of Reich’s influential repertoire if you’re not already familiar with it.]
Reich — along with other downtown minimalists in the 1960s and 1970s: LaMonte Young, Phillip Glass, sometimes Terry Riley — contributed to what was then a burgeoning neighborhood avant-garde art scene, one that blurred boundaries between media and forms and disciplines. A few paragraphs after Ross discusses Reich’s piece, he quotes the critic John Rockwell describing a loft performance by Phillip Glass at the artist Donald Judd’s loft, ending with a comparison of 70s SoHo with 50s Greenwich Village. “It was a good night to be in New York City,” Rockwell remembered.
That’s what I was thinking last night at Le Poisson Rouge, the new Village club in the space formerly inhabited by the Village Gate. LPR has mounted an incredibly ambitious and eclectic roster of live shows for the coming season, including several installments of the “Wordless Music Series,” which aims to bring together contemporary composers and indie rock audiences (and vice versa). Last weekend, the new music ensemble Signal played Reich’s most canonical piece as the second half of an evening of pulsing orchestral sounds. Reich himself was on hand on Saturday, becapped and (unless I was imagining it) glowing under the adulation he received from a diverse audience: indie kids, NYU percussion students, older folks more likely to attend performances at Lincoln Center than in a downtown basement venue, Sufjan Stevens (who was behind me in line to get in and whose music — especially the Michigan album — owes an enormous debt to Reich’s work). Most of the crowd sat on the floor or packed in several pockets assigned for standing room only. It was a vibe much more akin to a rock show than a classical performance, though when the music got underway the audience was rapt.
When the Times reported on Reich’s first recording of this piece in 1978, the critic opined that the record was better than the live show, which, in the critic’s view, tended toward the mechanical and cultish. Sitting on the floor of Le Poisson Rouge, close enough to the principal clarinet player to be able to read the score on his stand, I would have begged to differ, at least on the first point. There’s an extraordinary joy to go along with the piece’s trance-like mechanical qualities, a secular energy that pushes you, in the interactions between the ensemble as much as in the pulses they are producing, toward something like religious ecstasy.