Steve Reich won the Pulitzer Prize for music this year with his work Double Sextet, in which an ensemble consisting of flute, clarinet, violin, cello, vibraphone and piano plays against a recording of itself. It’s a technique called “phasing,” which Reich pioneered in the mid-60’s and returns to frequently. The idea is that the two forces—the recording and the live ensemble—begin playing in sync, but slowly shift away from one another, so that, eventually, one is playing in the other’s rests, and vice versa. From there, the groups either rejoin one another, or continue to diverge. Reich initially created the technique using bits of recorded dialogue, before composing phasing experiments for piano and violin. One of the high points in Reich’s canon, Drumming, uses the phasing technique with an arrangement for 8 bongo drums, 3 marimbas, 3 glockenspiels, 2 or 3 female voices, and a whistler—inspired by observing musicians during a trip to Africa, and studying with drummer Gideon Alorwoyie in Ghana.
Phasing is a sort of attempt to incorporate actual human experience into composition—something that Steve Reich has explored in a significant amount of his work. When the live ensemble playing Double Sextet or Drumming begins to fall out of sync with the recording, it’s an elaborately constructed replication of something that might happen by accident in real life. Also, it’s an acknowledgement that the process of making music can be as compelling, if not more compelling, than hearing something perfectly composed and executed. For example, there’s an incredible amount of beauty in hearing a singer struggle to hit a difficult note, or hearing a musician attempt to pull off a tricky phrase, because, in many ways, it mimics the everyday human experience—the everyday struggle, if you will.
Composed between 1974 and 1976, and recorded in 1978, Music for 18 Musicians exhibits Steve Reich beginning to move away from his early phasing experiments, but it has a similarly human organizing principle. The initial movement, “Pulses,” consists of eleven chords, immediately displaying more harmonic movement than most of Reich’s prior work. A movement is then dedicated to each of those eleven chords, using repetition of phrases to sustain them. The length of each movement is determined by the players’ breath—a clarinetist or vocalist with hold a note as long as possible as the ensemble deconstructs it. Subsequently, the entire piece can vary wildly in length, clocking in 11 minutes longer on the recording made for the Nonesuch label in 1998, simply because of the clarinetist’s breathing pattern.
Like breathing, Music for 18 Musicians is a easy, forward push. It remains constant for the 56 minute duration of the piece, continuing “without orgasm” (as the 1979 review of the recording in Rolling Stone implied) until the final movement. Because it focuses on breath, Reich’s work captures the simple beauty of walking around, or of riding the train—the fact that there’s always a flurry of activity going on, even in the calmest of actions. The air flowing in and out of your body. The repetition of your heartbeat. The blood flowing through your veins. The molecules dancing around you. The buzz of life—all of those exact same things happening, inexplicably, for someone else—five-hundred feet, fifty feet, five feet away. The imagined, subtly choreographed activity of your block, the city, the world. It is, without exaggeration, one of the most deeply moving pieces of music ever written.
Steve Reich has had an immeasurable influence on just about every genre of music—so much so that Music for 18 Musicians could probably have worked its way into our top ten for academic reasons alone. The minimalist ideas in his best known work have found their way into all stripes of electronic and dance music (that Rolling Stone review, funnily enough, refers to Music for 18 Musicians and Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach as “trance” music). His early experiments with phasing and tape loops laid the groundwork for hip-hop production techniques. The suspension without release of Music for 18 Musicians is basically the reason for the existence of a ton of post-rock bands, from Tortoise to Godspeed You! Black Emperor (or wherever they’re putting the exclamation mark these days.) Sonic Youth and the Orb have brought Reich’s music in more tangible ways into the pop marketplace. Ultimately, though, Music for 18 Musicians gets the penultimate slot in our countdown of favorite albums from 1978 because it’s as uncommonly beautiful as the act of breathing, and just as mysterious.
-Martin Brown, 2009