If one was to shortlist the seminal musical works of the 20th century, Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians (1974-76) would certainly assume its rightful position alongside such game-changing scores as Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps (1911-13/1947) and Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie (1946-48). Rooted in solid sonorous architecture, clad in raiments of exquisite colour and propelled by pulsations, setting the stage for buoyantly interlocked musical layers, Music for 18 Musicians comes off as veritable aural feast.
Awash with sonic enchantment, the score is wrought of a cycle of eleven chords, played at the very beginning of the piece and repeated at the end in the manner of pulsating chorales for full ensemble. Out of the harmonic cycle, a series of eleven circa four-minute sections is drawn, giving rise to musical blueprint worthy of the most organic symphonic designs.
”The movement from chord to chord is often a re-voicing, inversion, or relative minor or major of a previous chord – staying within the key signatures of three or four sharps throughout. Nevertheless, within these limits, harmonic movement plays a more important role in this 1976 piece than in any earlier work of mine. It opened the door to further harmonic development in the more than 45 years since”, Reich writes in his program note.
Perhaps surprisingly, this idea of chordal elongation initially stemmed from Pérotin and the Notre Dame organa, where pre-existing chants are stretched out into drones, upon which a luminous fabric of ecstatic melismata is sewn. Re-invented in the context of an ensemble of pianos, malllet percussion, two clarinets doubling bass clarinets, violin, viola and four voices singing vocalises à la Ella Fitzgerald, mixed together with gentle amplification, Music for 18 Musicians evokes ravishing sounding imagery not far removed from the glistening vistas of Claude Debussy’s La Mer (1903-05).
Alongside two ground-breaking album takes by Steve Reich and Musicians, that is to say the 1978 ECM first recording and the 1996 Nonesuch remake, Music for 18 Musicians has been well served on disc. Since the publication of the performance materials by Boosey and Hawkes, edited from the composer’s autograph shorthand by Marc Mellits, the score has been picked up by several notable contemporary music groups, resulting in top-notch studio recordings from Ensemble Modern (1999), Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble (2007) and Ensemble Signal (2015), alongside live takes with Amadinda Percussion Group (2004) and Ictus Ensemble (2015), the latter being a video release of a ballet presentation at Opéra National de Paris.
Joining the roster, the latest album account comes from Colin Currie and his ever-dexterous fellow musicians, a.k.a. Colin Currie Group. Teaming up with the core members of Synergy Vocals, a peerless ensemble of Reich veterans led by Micaela Haslam, the new recording, caught on microphones at Abbey Road Studios in London on 16 November 2022, following a high-profile US tour, including the composer’s 85th birthday celebration at Carnegie Hall.
Although scored for large ensemble, performing Music for 18 Musicians requires full-on chamber music sensibility from everyone involved. The conducting duties are shared among the performers, as they cue each other in moving from one repeated passage to the next. Serving as the master drummer, so to speak, the vibraphone player appears as primus inter pares in this respect, hence the instrument’s placement at the centre of the stage.
”I think, one of the reasons Music for 18 Musicians is such a good piece, is that it is completely chamber music. Even the vibraphone player, who’s giving the cues, must figure out, when is really the right time to change from one section to the next. And musicians get that. You can go to any performance of Music for 18 Musicians and you’ll see how the musicians are looking at each other, leaning over. It’s a large piece of chamber music, and that mentality is communicated to the audience; they see that, they feel that, and they participate.
So, that mentality is also in the idea of wanting to give the musicians a score that gives the information that they need. There are times you absolutely need to mark in dynamics. But there are many times, much of the time in my music, where it’is basically, look, you can see what’s there, use your own internal musicianship to see how you want it to go”, Reich reflected in our conversation around his 85th birthday.
In order to make Reich’s extraordinary score shine, musical communication at the highest level is required from its dedicated performers, alongside contrapuntal virtuosity and utmost rhythmic acuteness. Hence, unleashing the full expressive potential of Music for 18 Musicians calls forth a very special learning curve, something perhaps only years together can bring. In this respect, harnessing the joint musical knowledge of Colin Currie Group and Synergy Vocals into recorded takes at Abbey Road sets the stage for a milestone recording.
”When I first heard Colin Currie do Drumming my jaw dropped. I thought, this is wonderful, and also, I wanna kill these guys; you’re better than we are! I saw younger people, who heard this music when they were teenagers and they’ve been playing it a long time and they play it with a lot more expression, a lot more dynamics and a certain kind of ease. That’s one of the beautiful things about music. If you live long enough, you get to see your music being played by younger generations, and they bring something new to it. They bring their whole life as musicians to your music, and that is just wonderful”, the composer recalled in our birthday talk.
Recorded in scintillating 24bit 96kHz PCM high-resolution audio, the performance on this album is indeed an illustrious one. Clocking at sixty four minutes, the music is given in aptly spacious reading, out of which harmonic clouds of extraordinary sonic hue arise, to bewitching effect. A case in point of translucent counterpoint, the instrumental and vocal lines blend together with utmost buoyancy, lending the music an aura of resplendent colour.
Combining full note-values with exemplary agility, the members of Colin Currie Group and Synergy Vocals deliver an idiomatic performance, one of extraordinary edge and ravishing beauty. From deep-etched full-ensemble pulsations to refined mallet interlockings, the ensemble’s take on the score is simply outstanding. Well served by the recording team, further enhanced by pin-point engineering, this is an essential album presentation of Reich’s magnum opus, one wholeheartedly recommended for lifelong fans and newcomers alike.
Colin Currie Group
Steve Reich: Music for 18 Musicians
Recorded on 16 November 2022 at Abbey Road Studios, London, UK
Colin Currie Records CCR0006 (2023), 1 SACD
© Jari Kallio
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