An Alternate Perspective on Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians”

I first learned about Reich’s well-known minimalist work about two years ago in high school from my band director, Dr. Brame. Up until that point, I had heard about it and listened to pieces of it, but did not learn to appreciate the composition’s importance and subtleties until learning its history and sitting down to listen to it straight through. Dr. Brame made “Music for 18 Musicians” incredibly appealing to me and encouraged my high school class to experience it live if we ever had the rare opportunity to.

After scouring musical events near me for the next two years and seeing nothing, I was overjoyed to find out this year that “18 Musicians” would be performed at Lawrence’s very own Memorial Chapel, on April 24, 2016—its fortieth anniversary to the day. Throughout several weeks of hearing chunks of the rehearsals, my excitement grew. I had heard “Music for 18 Musicians” was an unbelievable experience live, and after listening to recordings of it countless times, I was more than ready.

At the concert, as soon as the piece started, I felt instant relaxation. For the most part, I knew what I was in for—the piece would probably sound similar to its recordings—but feeling the live, acoustic pulses in the Chapel and having them ring in my ears was an experience that cannot be replicated with recordings. I always feel relaxed when listening to “Music for 18 Musicians,” but this time, I felt tranquility as well as elation, the latter being uncommon with this particular piece.

The performance brought out the inner-dichotomy and strange paradoxical nature I have perceived when listening to recordings. Although I have encountered these details before, their essence was clearer and more distinct live. For many—along with most minimalist works—“Music for 18 Musicians” can be enjoyed by listening both passively and intently. It is also easy to view the ensemble as a whole, focus on a smaller group or even listen to just one musician. While this experience can be true for a lot of music, the bizarre thing about this work—especially live—is that both sides seem to occur simultaneously.

The dichotomy was also evident visually. As I watched, I first became aware of the movement made by the ensemble as a whole, no matter how many or few were playing at once. Sitting in the middle of the balcony, right in front of the back organ, I had a wide shot of the well-tuned machine. It was beautiful — I could see everything that was happening clearly and in doing so realized that the interlocking aspect of the music was also represented visually. A balance of cause and effect—akin to a Rube Goldberg machine—made the music come alive and also made the performance aesthetically pleasing.

This one side of the visual dichotomy was the default way I saw the concert, but by moving closer or trying to focus in on different players, the subtleties made themselves seen. These subtleties reminded me of the humans playing the piece—they were not automatons and had small quirks that made the performance enjoyable to witness in a different regard. The way one musician’s glasses slowly slipped down his nose, the way some musicians switched from looking around to concentrating on their own part, the slight smiles of contentedness throughout the duration and ensemble—all these details could be missed so easily, but noticing them made the fortieth anniversary of Reich’s seminal, large-ensemble work all the better.

After about 70 minutes of pulsing, “Music for 18 Musicians” was over, followed by one or two minutes of near-complete silence and then appreciative applause. It was such a special experience to share with the rest of the audience and the musicians onstage. And now, I will tell you what my high school band director Dr. Brame told me: if you have the opportunity to see “18 Musicians” performed, regardless if you already have or not, take it.