Saturday, February 23, 2008

Music for student musicians

I can't imagine a lovelier gift for composer Steve Reich's 70th birthday than when this group from a large, obscure Allendale, Michigan school showed up at the New York City Bang on a Can Marathon in June 2007 & gave a warm, accomplished sunrise performance of "Music for 18 Musicians." True, the "conductor" & several of the students had consulted with members of the Steve Reich Ensemble & met the composer. But Reich probably never expected they'd do this well. Yet, for all the sophistication of Reich's music & his international reputation, he must have dreamed of it from time to time, of hearing a reassuring echo from the provinces, that his music had made such a successful journey out & back. These aren't virtuoso conservatory kids; they're fine musicians from a large academic music department who likely had to give up some other projects & activities to make the commitment. The students are joined by a few faculty & outsiders, but it's their gig. They had to live inside the musical project for a year to bring it to this level.

You don't have to be a virtuoso to perform "Music for 18 Musicians." You do have to be part of a virtuoso ensemble performance. A full realization of the work lasts about an hour. Back in 1974, Reich brought a few of his musicians out to Ramapo College of New Jersey for a workshop. I was a student. He was working on music like this, perhaps not this particular piece. His brand new "scores" were fragments, phrases, no single phrase was really difficult, & you learned the phrases one after the other. To that point it resembled Balinese gamelan. Except it wasn't gamelan. The difficulty was jumping from one phrase to next, while listening to others, & feeling the pulse of the music. Once you started the music, you had to keep going. Our traditional backgrounds had not prepared us, & Reich himself asked which of us had played in rock or jazz groups because he felt that experience was more valuable for what the music required. Still, it wasn't something you just stepped up, read through, & played. Had you asked me then what it would take for a bunch of state college student musicians to master "Music for 18 Musicians," I probably would have replied that it would take months of living with it. So that's what they did 30 years later at Grand Valley State University.

You can hear the whole work here in RealAudio mono, not the best listening experience.

(The 1974 workshop was a pivotal experience. I was familiar with what little music Reich had recorded, & subscribed to an experimental music magazine that had published excerpts from his scores. To me, he was already a big deal. So actually meeting him - he was sincere, approachable, & direct, seeing how he worked with other musicians, was a thrill. I was typical of artists, composers, & writers my age who found "minimalism" very useful & were influenced by it but declined to associate with any particular "movement." I got the impression Reich also was looking for rehearsal musicians, not to join his ensemble but apparently to go to New York occasionally on short notice to play easier parts when he was informally trying ideas out, which would have been a need for him at the time, as his music became more expansive.)


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