News > Spoleto 2016 Review: Music For 18 Musicians

By: Matt Dobie

It is defined as minimalist music for its slow harmonic changes and gradual shifts in texture and dynamics, but let me tell you, there is nothing small about Steve Reich’s Music For 18 Musicians. It evolves and builds to a sustaining expansive soundscape that is both rhythmically complex and emotionally impactful. Yes, the music most certainly stands alone, but seeing it performed live was an awe-inspiring experience.

So much of this piece is groundbreaking, not least of all its instrumentation: one violin, one cello, two clarinets doubling bass clarinet, four women’s voices, four pianos, three marimbas, two xylophones, and a metallophone (vibraphone with no motor).

The music is comprised of constant hypnotic pulses that never truly subside throughout the entire piece. Layered on top of that are human breath pulses in which the bass clarinetists and female vocalists pulse on a single note, rise to a crescendo, and then diminish for as long as their breath will allow. As Reich himself put it, “One breath after another gradually washing up like waves against the constant rhythms of the pianos and mallet instruments.” As the piece unfolds, new rhythmic patterns are explored and intertwined into complex polyrhythms that convey a palpable groove while simultaneously mesmerizing us into a trance-like state.

As for the visuals, watching the performers was like witnessing the inner workings of some great machine, a vast mechanical production line with each cog moving in perfect synchronicity to the next. It was a perfect compliment to the music—as visually mesmerizing as it was audibly. Three marimba players on one marimba, their mallets bounding around each other like robotic arms on a conveyor belt. Two other marimba players, each with four mallets, their movements precise and identical like some masterfully choreographed dance.

The stamina and focus of these performers was impeccable, especially considering the repetition of some of the sections. Witnessing players strike straight quarter notes for what must have been 20 minutes was impressive to say the least. And it was a treat to watch them have fun. I couldn’t count how many times I saw them smile at each other, and that joy was infectious.

It was a meditative and exhilarating experience. And when it was over I couldn’t be sure exactly how much time had passed, but I knew I was better for the trip. Without a hint of sentimentality, it is a moving piece of music and one that is wholly entertaining for its entire one-hour duration.

Posted on June 4, 2016 by admin.

Categories: Performing Arts, Review

Tags: Music For 18 Musicians, Steve Reich

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