When Steve Reich released Music for 18 Musicians
(ECM, 1978), it was a consolidation and major leap forward in the pulse-based music that the minimalist progenitor had been exploring on earlier compositions including "Four Organs" (1969), a piece that relied on nothing more than a six-note chord, yet was a near flat-out sonic assault. 18 Musicians
was an altogether more complex and sophisticated work, with a broader textural palette based largely on tuned percussionpiano, vibraphone, marimba and xylophonebut also working with maracas, voice, strings, and clarinets to create a sweeping, hour-plus long suite that was hypnotic, melodic, and eminently accessible. With the mathematical precision by which its eleven sections and wrapping "Pulses" develop, it's a demanding suite to play. It's also a challenge to create differentiation from previous versions, especially when Reich himself has released two versionsthe original 1978 ECM recording and a later, slightly longer 1996 Nonesuch Records edition.
For a University Ensemble to take on this challenging music is impressive, and Grand Valley State University's New Music Ensemble has done a remarkable job with its own take on Music for 18 Musicians, under the guidance of director Bill Ryan. Length-wise at 61 minutes somewhere between Reich's two versions, what helps define this version is that, while there are, indeed, 18 musicians, and the basic instrumentation is the same, the apportioning of that instrumentation is different. Reich's 1996 version featured seven pianos to the NME's six; two maracas to NME's three; four xylophones to NME's two. It's a subtle difference but, when assessing NME's reading, one that changes the complexion of the piece ever so slightly. While both versions traverse sonic territory from airy atmospherics (despite the ever-present pulse that drives the entire piece) to denser counterpoint, NME's version feels ever so slightly lighter.
Reich has always managed to possess a certain levity when compared to minimalist cohort Philip Glass' greater gravitas, leaning more to the ethereal, even during the more active "Section XI." With a composition like this, the mix also becomes an equal part of defining the overall soundscape, and Ryan and co-editor/producer Silas Brown do a marvelous job in spreading the sound across a three-dimensional aural landscape, making it an even greater trance-inducing experience than Reich's 1978 original.
Reich, like his minimalist co-founders, has evolved beyond the stricter regimen of his earlier work, yet Music for 18 Musicians remains a classic, and the perfect entry point for those who've yet to take the dive into a style of music that is often criticized for being too strongly based on mathematics and logic. Ryan's New Music Ensemble proves, with its version of Music for 18 Musicians, that the beauty of Reich is just that: beautyand a remarkable ability to create resonant, evocative music from a highly considered standpoint.
Personnel: Gwendolyn Faasen: voice; Stacey Van Vossen: voice; Mary Crossman: voice; Amanda Duncan: voice, marimba; Alexander Hamel: xylophone, marimba, maracas; Samuel Gould: xylophone; Nicholas Usadel: marimba; Tim Church; marimba; Joshua Puranen: marimba, maracas; Gregory Secor: vibraphone; Daniel Redner: piano, maracas; Craig Avery: piano, marimba; Shaun MacDonald: piano; Kelly Rizzo: piano; Kurt Ellenberger: piano; Lee Copenhaver: piano; Mark Martin: violin; Pablo Mahave-Veglia: cello; Charlan Mueller: clarinet, bass clarinet; Alexander Kolias: clarinet, bass clarinet.