I want to give props this week to the Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble. The ever-vigilant Molly Sheridan brought to our attention a YouTube video publicizing the ensemble’s rehearsal, performance, and recording of Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, a piece that became “something of a lifestyle” for the group. Not only did the ensemble spend a year working the rather imposing composition up to scratch, they traveled to New York to meet with Reich, played the piece in a number of contexts and locales, and produced a 5.1 SACD that will probably be extremely cool, particularly from an audio geek standpoint. They even put together that video for YouTube to spread the word!
This is exactly what new music ensembles should be doing: GVSUNME, as I like to acronymize them, embarked on a long-term mission to master (in both senses of the word) a piece of modern music. They decided that it was important to them to take the work seriously. They set aside plenty of rehearsal time. They made a personal connection with the composer. They took advantage of readily available technology to document their efforts with care in a way that will allow a broader audience access. I think it’s remarkable. This is how performance traditions for contemporary music will be formed and standards of interpretation raised—an absolutely imperative process that happens all too seldom among new music ensembles.
I only have one small complaint, one suggestion for the ensemble as they prepare for their next major project, and most of you already know what it is: Music for 18 Musicians‘s place in posterity is not at all endangered. Although GVSUNME did us a service by producing a new recording of it, they could have done an even greater service by allocating the same resources they gave Reich’s piece to a piece whose future is less certain. The past 20 (50?) years are rife with works, many by well-recognized composers, that have been played only once. What if GVSUNME took up the mantle of giving such a piece a second life, a genuine performance history?
Repertoire choices aside, however, it’s clear that GVSUNME has struck upon an exportable model that I’d implore other ensembles to follow. I hope that members of the group would agree that everyone—performers, composer, and audience—gets much more out of the experience when the ensemble makes a bona fide commitment to “live” the piece.