A ‘Gateway Drug’ In Contemporary Music
Daniel Stephen Johnson is right when, in his write-up for Q2 Music’s Album of the Week, he refers to Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians as a “gateway drug for a lifelong addiction to Reich’s aesthetic.” I’ve turned people on to this piece more than than to any other, myself, and it never fails to grab them in ways most such work can’t do.
If I had only one chance to try to lure authors to the work of living composers, this is the piece I’d choose. And this is the recording I’d select, newly released by Harmonia Mundi, a glistening new evocation of the work from Brad Lubman’s New York-based Ensemble Signal — which since its inception in 2008 has performed more than 100 concerts and has co-produced at least five recordings.
Music for 18 Musicians holds so much stimulation for a writer because it propels you into your own thoughts. A kind of sonic vehicle for creativity, it sets your concepts spinning, glancing off each other, dashing from room to room in your mind. It can help you delineate strains of story and character and pace because it parses its own elements of tonality and texture so cleanly. If you haven’t heard this Reich, you’re in for a remarkable, mesmerizing journey that plays you as much as its musicians play (and double up to do so) their instruments in order to produce it. The work’s sleek sophistication has held up with striking modernity over the decades. You feel at home in this singular music and you’ll find it flashing through your mind days after the first hearing. Listen for the sopranos’ highest iterations of their seductive, windblown three-tone song. These are the sirens of our era.
Written between 1974 and 1976, the work stands as prehaps the most influential creation of one of music’s most revered modern masters. Now approaching 80, Reich is among a handful of composers whose voice broke through the symphonic explorations of the mid-twentieth century and tossed the idiom forward. The leap is one that Ashley Capps’ fine liner notes rightly compare to a kind of Rite of Spring for recent generations of serious music lovers and artists.
At once stylish and intense, darting and spacious, Music for 18 Musicians opens and closes with a statement of “Pulses” that are developed in a gradual gathering of so-called “psycho-acoustic” effects — percussion (piano, marimba), strings, woodwinds, voice seem to phase alongside each other in such tight, intimate proximity, skin to skin, that your perception of the piece can seem to change with every hearing. Like something a modern Monet might put onto a canvas, there are always ripples, glints of color you can’t recall hearing before. It’s a remarkable achievement.
This sixth recording of the work brings special light to the shifting currents of Reich’s masterwork. Ensemble Signal has been beautifully prepared by its co-founder and music director Lubman. While not conducted as a standard work might be, the musicians here are coached by Lubman to superb effect, and in our interview I started by asking the affable, articulate Lubman about the timing of this album.
Thought Catalog: Why now? What prompts this new recording of Music for 18 Musicians?
Brad Lubman: Ensemble Signal has had an important connection to Steve Reich since it was founded, and he’s been an important composer for me — I met him back in 1995. After he saw me conduct a concert, he engaged me the following year to conduct his ensemble, Steve Reich and Musicians. In 1997, Music for 18 Musicians was being performed by Ensemble Moderne, and I was involved in coaching them for that album release. Even since 2008, we very often do his repertoire…By the time we made this new recording, many members of Ensemble Signal had performed a number of his pieces. It’s in their blood.
TC: To my ear, there’s such clarity in this recording, everything is standing out in sharp relief. Is that what you were going for?
BL: For me, that’s an important goal no matter what the repertoire is, contemporary music or Beethoven. Clarity is important and the composer’s wishes are very important. My role in Music for 18 Musicians is in musical direction, as a coach, and in this case, we were aided greatly by a wonderful producer, Michael Riesman. What one learns over the years is that the role of the producer is crucial. He and I have worked on a number of recordings, and I think that the like-minded approach we have has helped a lot.
TC: Can you describe for us what’s difficult about this piece? And, in fact, is this a difficult piece for musicians?
BL: My viewpoint is that I don’t feel one should ever say anything is difficult. What I’ve found is that even with some very complex music, once you’ve spent enough time with it, once you assimilate its features, you start to grasp the particular style and realize it’s not really difficult. You just have to spend the time with it.
One thing that’s interesting is to see throughout the generations how, for example, if you listen to early recordings of The Rite of Spring and then compare them to more recent recordings, maybe made in the last 20 years, you can hear that the orchestras have an easier time with certain facets of The Rite of Spring today than they did in recordings made in the ’50s and ’60s. You have a generation of musicians who have grown up listening to Music for 18 Musicians, it’s been in their ears and their bodies since they were kids. There’s an immediacy to it for them.
TC: This isn’t unlike our writers’ experience with their novels. Many of our authors spend so much time with their books that the texts aren’t so complex to them anymore. But imagine the days when composers and musicians couldn’t hear each others’ work — and learn that complexity, as you’re saying — in the days before recording, let alone before the Internet. It was a very different prospect, wasn’t it, to start with what was only on paper in the era pre-recordings. They had to learn it from nothing. It was a completely different world, wasn’t it?
BL: Oh yes, I remember a time in the early ’80s or even the ’90s when unless you traveled to Salzburg or London, you didn’t know anything about a piece until either some cassette tape was floating around or the piece was lucky enough to be recorded. Nowadays, so many things are recorded more often and available almost immediately. It’s a very different world, maybe in some ways a more open world with cross-fertilization of genres.
As a college student in the early ’80s, it was hard to hear gamelan or Indian music. I had one roommate in college who had a pretty nice collection on the Nonesuch Explorer label. There just weren’t many records to hear some little bit of world music.
TC: What’s the stance of Ensemble Signal now? What do you focus on?
BL: We do a wide range, from Reich to Pierre Boulez, it really runs the gamut. We’ve done a series where we’ve been pairing up Bach with contemporary composers. We’re doing a couple of multi-media pieces at the end of May in Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, Steve Reich’s Three Tales, and a piece co-composed by Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe, called Shelter [which Ensemble Signal has recorded on the Cantaloupe label].
TC: It’s an incredible time right now, isn’t it? We have so many strong composers working at once.
BL: It’s a very, very healthy time.
One of the reasons is that we’re no longer plagued by notions of borders. No one tells you, “You have to play it this way” or “You have to play it that way.” It’s a very open time. And because of that we’re seeing an explosion of compositional languages. Compositional languages, compositional styles — people take different influences. They don’t just say “Oh, I’m writing minimalism” or “I’m writing modernism.” People are freer to put more into the mix.
It’s very, very open. There’s such a wide range. It’s really the healthiest time for music.