This semester, the new music ensemble I direct at Grand Valley State University is performing Steve Reich’s groundbreaking work Music for 18 Musicians. Concerts celebrating his seventieth birthday are being staged around the globe this year, and so I thought it would be fitting for western Michigan to contribute to the party.
Our ensemble is diverse, to say the least. There are two faculty members who have always wanted to perform Music for 18, plus three community members—one a professional musician who volunteered because of her long-held dream to perform it. There are a few students who jumped at the opportunity, having already memorized every nuance of the recordings (most have the 1999 Grammy-winning CD featuring Reich and company, released when the students were just fourteen years old). Then there’s one student who has only performed in marching bands. And finally, what I find to be the most interesting bunch, several students with no knowledge of Reich or his music. Imagine that.
As we stumbled through the early rehearsals and tried to figure out how to navigate the work, the ensemble came to a quick and common understanding of the composition’s great significance. Even thirty years after its premiere, this work is unlike any they have ever encountered: a conductor-less large ensemble work in which aural cues determine forward movement; a work where performers make real-time decisions about when to enter and exit and for how long to play; a work with an incessant pulse underneath interlocking patterns that imply a multitude of downbeats and meters, and accessible chords that are ambiguously presented at a snail-like pace.
In late September, after a month of rehearsals, I began to realize that pulling off a good performance was not only possible, but well within our grasp. With the intent of taking our own work to the next level, I decided to arrange a small field trip with five ensemble members to New York City, birthplace of the piece and the composer.
And so last month we attended the “Steve Reich @ 70” festival at Carnegie Hall. Among the many scheduled events was a concert with Steve Reich and Musicians performing Music for 18 Musicians. While our only goal was to come back with a deeper understanding of this work, what we experienced went far beyond that.
Now for those of you living in New York and active in the new music scene there, it’s possible you take for granted the multitude of concerts, the opportunity to rub elbows with performers and composers, and the amazing access you have to just about everything (new music and otherwise). To give you an idea of how much this trip impacted my students: two had never before been to New York, one had never even been on an airplane, and Allendale, Michigan, is most definitely not on the touring schedule of anyone, except maybe John Deere.
I’m friends with a few of the musicians in Reich’s ensemble, so in addition to the scheduled activities, we set up a few personal events. On the Saturday we arrived, we had coffee with percussionist Bob Becker and violinist Todd Reynolds. While one of my percussion students literally could not speak in the presence of these world-class artists, the rest of us had a terrific conversation about realizing Music for 18 Musicians. When I mentioned our group was having a hard time maintaining the quarter = 208 tempo for the duration of the work, Becker explained that such a strict interpretation really wasn’t Reich’s intention. He said each section settles into what is comfortable (within reason, of course), and if Reich thinks the tempo needs adjusting, he’ll move to that tempo and everyone follows. Another question we had was about the doublings throughout the work. To be performed with only eighteen musicians, many performers must double other parts, with the result being a maze-like path through the work. This is not indicated in the score, and most ensembles perform the work with twenty or twenty-one performers to avoid the changes. Becker explained that the original parts were written for specific players with specific abilities, and that by no means is this a required route through the work, which is why it’s not indicated in the score.
Later that evening we had a terrific dinner with Reynolds and composer Marc Mellits. Mellits is widely considered to be the expert on Music for 18 Musicians. He spent two years transcribing the original ECM recording and is the sole reason a score exists for others to perform today. He continues to be the copyist for Reich. We enjoyed fabulous food and talked about Reich’s music and new music in general.
That evening was the festival’s sold-out, opening night concert at Carnegie’s Stern Auditorium. We had terrific balcony seats and saw Pat Metheny perform Electric Counterpoint; Different Trains, performed by the Kronos Quartet; and Music for 18 Musicians, performed by Steve Reich and Musicians. Of course we heard the music, but we also experienced the music—the swirling overtones, the energy from the audience, the choreography of the ensemble. Just to watch how the ensemble interacted on stage and floated between the instrumental parts was fascinating. We were furiously making notes in our scores on the physical movements we saw and hoped to capture for our own use.
To top off our already amazing evening, Reynolds surprised us by getting our group on “the list” to get backstage. With wide-eyed students in tow, we headed back and spoke to several other musicians. We saw Becker again. Percussionist Jim Preiss was particularly nice and chatted for a minute. And then Reynolds introduced us to Steve Reich himself. He talked to us for a moment, said he was impressed we came all the way from Michigan, shook our hands, and posed for a picture with us. Wow. And on our way out we even got to meet Pat Metheny.
The second day was just as remarkable. There were lectures, workshops, and a film on Steve Reich in the afternoon. Toward the end, a few of my students left and snuck into the final rehearsal for Daniel Variations, which would receive its American premiere later that night. After another amazing dinner we filed into Carnegie’s edgier Zankel Hall. We heard a pre-concert discussion between Reich and Carnegie’s Artistic Advisor Ara Guzelimian, followed by a concert that consisted of Cello Counterpoint performed by Maya Beiser, Piano/Video Phase featuring David Cossin, and performances of Daniel Variations and the complete Drumming, both by Steve Reich and Musicians with Synergy Vocals.
After the show we again headed backstage and met with David Cossin (who performed brilliantly despite, we learned, a pinched nerve in his back) and spoke to Reich again. This time he signed all the students’ programs and wished us luck with our own performance, commenting that he sure hoped there were more than the five of us.
After a long day of traveling, we arrived back on our campus on Monday to share our experiences with the rest of the ensemble. To say the least, they are jealous. The enthusiasm we carry as a result of our experience is obvious and infectious, and I am quite confident that our remaining rehearsals and performance will be exponentially enhanced because of this excitement and our increased understanding of the work.
Active as a composer, conductor, and concert producer, Bill Ryan is an assistant professor at Grand Valley State University where he teaches composition, founded and directs the New Music Ensemble, and produces the Free Play concert series. For more information on the ensemble’s Steve Reich project, see www.newmusicensemble.org.