Minimalism is often unfairly associated with sterile, cold music – some might argue that its use of phasing leaves no room for emotion and spontaneity, or that its glacial repetition is simply a bore. But Steve Reich’s 1978 work Music for 18 Musicians is an example of how compelling minimalism can be. He shrugs off the aforementioned accusations to create a piece of music that’s both complex and intensely affecting.
I first came across Music for 18 Musicians when I began university. Its pulsing, overlapping melodies were the perfect antidote to the occasional bouts of homesickness I suffered from. I found myself continually returning to Reich’s music as the winter nights started drawing in and the cold started snapping. It’s testament to its power that a work as manifold as Music for 18 Musicians can function so successfully on both emotional and intellectual levels.
Music for 18 Musicians begins with a lone metallophone that’s soon joined by a quivering mass of instrumentation including violins, female vocalists and piano. Layer upon layer of sound is built up, but it never becomes cacophonous – it’s a seething structure of melody that ebbs and flows beautifully as the instruments wax and wane. Based around a sequence of eleven chords, each segment in the piece flows seamlessly into the next. One of the things I find most interesting about Music for 18 Musicians is that it starts and ends with intricately related sections both titled ‘Pulses’. The close of the final ‘Pulse’ echoes the beginning of the first, completing the loop and implying a rather dizzying sense of endlessness.
According to my Last.fm profile, I’ve listened to Music for 18 Musicians in its entirety thirty times; I still find fresh shades of meaning in it today. New sonic nuances reveal themselves with each listen. In section IX I’m struck by the off-kilter development of the clarinets. Notes are added to the melody until it collapses in on itself, engulfed by the piano which in turn suffers the same fate as the clarinets. The best way to describe this part is perhaps as a cascading series of musical waterfalls, each one more complexly beautiful than that before it.
Even if you have no interest in contemporary classical, or if you’ve listened to minimalism before and hated it, I can’t recommend Music for 18 Musicians highly enough. There’s something transcendent about Reich’s work. It’s so much more than an experimental exercise in phasing and a reaction to traditional music. I count it among the defining moments in my musical life – after listening to it for the first time, nothing quite seemed the same. In a good way, of course.