Thursday, October 6, 2011

Reich at 75: 18 Takes Off

Perhaps Music for Eighteen Musicians would have stayed in its oral form if not for the piece’s instant popularity.  Its premiere at Town Hall in New York on April 24, 1976 created a critical stir.  New York Times critic John Rockwell called it a “remarkable piece of work” and hoped that the premiere recording would the win the piece a larger audience.[1]  Even the so-called “Dean of American Rock Critics,” Robert Christgau, gave the piece a very favorable review, speaking to its genre-transcending potency.[2] While Eighteen was recorded formally in the studio soon after the premiere, Reich’s label at the time, Deutsch Gramophone, sat on the recording and eventually declined to release it.[3] However, Reich eventually got a letter from the German jazz label ECM (who at the time was producing best-selling albums by the likes of Keith Jarrett and Pat Metheny) saying that they wanted to pick up the recording.[4] Upon release of the album in 1978, Eighteen received airplay on college and public radio stations alongside avant-rock artists like David Bowie and Brian Eno.[5] Within 2 years of release, ECM sold over 100,000 copies of the record.  Reich’s music was busting out of downtown New York art galleries and capturing the attention of listeners and fellow musicians throughout the world.
In the wake of the popular success of Music for Eighteen Musicians, Reich came across the predicament of other musicians wanting to play his pieces.  Because of the particular manner in which Eighteen was written down and learned, the existing parts would make very little sense to any musician who had not learned the piece in Reich’s group.  If other musicians wished to perform Eighteen, they had to learn it from scratch by listening to the recording numerous times and then using the familiarity of the piece to decipher the shorthand directions on the written parts.  Because the task of learning and rehearsing the piece would take months and was rather unfeasible economically for most professional musicians, only two outside groups took the piece on within the two decades after the original album’s release.[6] One of the performances, organized by the Amadinda percussion group in Hungary, was recorded live on May 18, 1990 and later released on CD in 2004.[7] Because the group virtually learned the piece by rote over the course of several months, they play it as convincingly as Reich’s band.  The performance is louder and more insistent than the original recording.  The tempo is a couple of metronome ticks faster and stays ruthlessly consistent throughout the piece, compared to the slight tempo fluctuations that the Reich ensemble settled into.  It is clear that the performers in the 1990 recording have physically internalized the piece much in the same way Reich’s musicians did.  The subtle differences in performance are due to idiosyncrasies in personal time feel rather than overall familiarity with the piece.

Because of the difficulties associated with performing Eighteen as such, a new decipherable score and parts set was necessary in order for the piece to have a life of its own outside the original recording and periodic performances.  Luckily, this development would eventually become a reality due to the enduring success of both Eighteen and Reich’s subsequent works.  Though Music for Eighteen Musicians was Reich’s most popular piece to date, it did not turn him into a one-hit wonder.  Later pieces like Music for Large Ensemble and Tehillim were also critical successes and helped cement Reich as one of the most well regarded American composers – he was soon receiving many commissions from major performers throughout the United States.[8]  At that time, Reich’s music was growing more conventional in that it could be (and in some cases had to be) expressed in traditional western notation.  Tehillim, for instance, features a regular pulse, but near constant time signature shifts.  Because of this rhythmic complexity, it could not be taught by rote in the same way as Eighteen and so was written down in a more complete fashion.[9] In the middle of these developments in the mid-1980s, the British publishing house Boosey and Hawkes began to publish Reich’s music.  With its worldwide distribution, Boosey was able to bring Reich’s music to new places and allow different ensembles to learn and perform it.  However, even with the backing of one of the world’s largest music publishing firms, it would take the enthusiasm of American PhD student to create a usable score for Music for Eighteen Musicians.

***Next, hear about how Marc Mellits put '18' on paper and how the score changes performances***

[1] John Rockwell, “The Pop Life,” The New York Times, 17 November 1978, page C12.
[2] Robert Christgau, “American Consumer Guide Reviews: Steve Reich,” get_artist.php?name=steve+reich
[3] Zuckerman Interview with Reich.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Zuckerman interview with Reich.
[7] Amadinda & Musicians, Steve Reich: Music for Eighteen Musicians, html/Afelv_10.html
[8] The San Francisco Symphony soon commissioned Variations for Winds, Strings and Keyboards, and Reich later composed popular pieces for the Kronos Quartet (Different Trains) and guitarist Pat Metheny (Electric Counterpoint).
[9] Steve Reich, Tehillim, London: Boosey & Hawkes, 1981.

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