Not listening to Eighteen Musicians

My thoughts on Steve Reich’s music are on a roller-coaster after last night’s concert. Reich himself was one of two clappers in “Clapping Music” and I felt lucky to be in the presence of this legend performing his own music. The sounds are intricate and fun and the simple act of two people hand clapping in patterns leads my mind all over the place while I listen. My ears hear, and the effect inside my brain is to further complicate beats and rhythms. I love this – it’s like meditation and it’s like code too, and similar to both, the music builds imaginary spaces which I enter as I listen, and from which I sometimes am ejected when I momentarily lose my place, and my mind wanders, and I become filled with tedium. This is all ok, it is part of the experience. “Relax and bring your mind back to your breathing,” they say in yoga, and in Minimal music it might be, “…bring your mind back to the pulse.”

I had an insight last night, and my on again/off again feelings about this music resolved themselves a bit. “2 x 5,” is an amplified guitar and drum piece from 2009 that was having its west coast premier at this concert, at the end of the first half. This type of music is incredibly difficult to play, and judging by the amazed and happy looks on the faces of the players it is also supremely satisfying to play. The counting involved must be exhausting, the sounds made by the musicians intersect and then diverge in very many patters, always the relationship between and among them is evolving; I picture in my mind a strand of DNA, I imagine a central chord with many strands weaving around and about it.

“2 x 5” was wondrously complex, and as a thing it was beautiful beyond my understanding. This part is good, I like art that is beyond me in this way. It asks me questions and it makes me work, I find myself to be enchanted and happily I go along. Last night though, “2 x 5” was loud, and I felt quite uncomfortable during and after listening. This is not the fault of the composer nor of the players, the audience around me were….. well, as one they cheered after the last note.

I don’t listen to much that is loud, and even in the enthusiasm of my youth, I spent my nightclubbing time standing in the parking lot or in the lobby, where I could hear without being overwhelmed by the volume.

Whatever. This isn’t important, it’s simply personal taste. But, as a consequence of my experience with “2 x 5,” and the headache I developed, I chose to sit out the second half, which was “Music for Eighteen Musicians” and is among Reich’s most famous pieces. This absence of mine, this distanced experience, gave me impetus to think about the music, and – outside of question of volume – to consider my experience of Minimal music.

The thing is, I have always found “Eighteen Musicians” tedious. It goes on for nearly an hour, it is intricate, its evolution is glacial; it is one of those pieces that you’ll love ‘if you like that sort of thing.’ It needs to be masterfully timed, as does all such music.

When I re-entered the lobby, after forty minutes of walking around, I thought “I wonder if there are possible alternate interpretations when playing Minimal music? Slower, or faster, and shifts of emphasis?,” for what I heard in that moment sounded exactly what I had heard in past experiences with the piece. I wonder if one of the points of this music is exactly its perfection?

I once heard Christoph Eschenbach conduct a symphony at Disney Hall, I cannot recall now what it was, but his interpretation was slow, agonizingly slow. This floored me, I was familiar with the piece and had heard Salonen conduct the same symphony with a faster tempo, and I loved it then. Not that Salonen’s interpretation was jazzy, or that he or Eschenbach altered the composer’s music substantively, but their changes allowed me a way to reconsider what I heard, and made me more aware of my relationship to the music as a work of art. By the time the orchestra let go, and Eschenbach lowered his hands and turned, I was in tears and exhausted. Never have I been more grateful to a man for an experience with music.

I have experienced similar exaltation with Minimal music a number of times. Concert music is one of the best things I spend my time on, and I am catholic in my tastes. Indeed, a great many experiences with Steve Reich’s music are among the finest hours listening that I have spent. With “Music for Eighteen Musicians” in particular, an initial experience of such purity can be amazing and beautiful, but for me it doesn’t bear further listening. It offers one experience; it takes me there, and nowhere else.

1 Comment

  1. wonderful review of Steve’s music. Open honest and creative. Bravo. wish i lived in Lalalandia to have had the chance to hear it live….

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