This is the fifth of the “50 Albums of Note” series.
I’ve put this off a lot because I am afraid of it. Classical music is not my subject. I can’t really tell my Mozart from my Beethoven, or my romantic period from my baroque. But after a little investigation, I realise that if were not for Steve Reich and perhaps this composition in particular, few if any of the modern classical composers that I do know - Max Richter, Phillip Glass, Ryan Teague, Anna Meredith, Nitin Sawnhey, Nils Frahm and more - would sound as they do. In the last episode of the Radio 3 podcast series The Story of Music in 50 Pieces, Steve Reich - a very affable American with a trademark black baseball cap now in his eighties - is described as bringing back classical music from the brink of extinction in the mid 70s with his now trademark style of phasing melodies a blueprint for the style of music now known as minimalism. There are a few albums in this list which you could say started some sub-genre of music, but talking about the masterpiece from the man that saved classical music as a whole? Just a bit daunting.
Steve Reich started composing in the 60s but it wasn’t until he came home from a study trip to Ghana that his output started to peak. First from that period and also the first thing of his I heard courtesy of a connection to the BBC Young Musician competition was the composition Drumming in 1971, the first major work to use this concept of Phasing which almost all his works use to great effect. But what is this phasing I hear you cry? For this, a simple segue to another of Reich’s pieces that any two pairs of hands can have a go at - Clapping Music.
Based on flamenco, Clapping Music requires two people to clap out a simple twelve beat pattern. Every eighth repeat, one clapper misses a beat and so the accents in the clap start to phase out of each other, occasionally matching, occasionaly not until the pattern matches back up again about two minutes later. It requires a remarkable amount of concentration on the part of the clappers while the listeners go giddy trying to keep up.
So that’s phasing for two. Now scale that up to 60 ish minutes of 18 musicians and hopefully you get an idea of the mesmeric, dream sequence effect this music can have. Two pianos kick off with a series of pulses timed around a human breath which three vocalists and then a clarinet and bass clarinet pick up providing a framework to the piece. The pulses are followed by eleven sections mapping a chord progression with each section deconstructing that chord with different instruments phrasing, phasing and framing until the progression returns to the beginning and ends with a similar set of pulses as at the beginning. Watching this live, you realise it’s not just a triumph of music but also of logisitics. As each section evolves, players runto different instruments. There’s no conductor so leading revolves around the owner of the pulse be that the vocalists, bass clarinet or metallophone. There’s no pause as there would be in a symphony. Each section moves seamlessly into the next with how long each section last being in the eye of the beholders (well, the performers anyway). And then it just ends and the reverie ends as normalcy returns and you remember to clap.
Music for 18 Musicians, like pretty all minimalist compositions and in particular those of Steve Reich, is something you need to let wash over and through you. You’re not going to hum the tune to this the following day. You’re going to remember how it felt to listen to it, those few moments when the pulses returned as sections followed on, those few moments of silence as it ends. And then, with that audio eye open, you’ll start to hear its influence - perhaps its genius even - in other music around you.