Steve Reich: Music for 18 Musicians - GVSU New Music Ensemble
Steve Reich: Music for 18 Musicians
Grand Valley State University
New Music Ensemble
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Review by John Broggio - December 2, 2007
A wonderful début disc from a very enterprising young ensemble.
Coming hot on the heels from a very well reviewed concert in New York, the GVSU New Music Ensemble and their director Bill Ryan have had the courage to set down this seminal work of minimalism. I should warn those who do not know this piece that it is like Marmite - you will either love it for the hypnotic pulse and the frequent but small changes or hate it for the same reasons!
It is hard to describe the effect of hearing the music but if you enjoy Philip Glass or Michael Nyman then this work should be heard. Indeed it is hard to imagine a better performance - there are one or two momentary lapses of ensemble where an entry is slightly insecure but these small glitches quickly resolve themselves and are soon forgotten such is the dramatic impetus that Ryan secures from his audibly enthusiastic team. I do not mean to suggest that they are only enthusiastic (in a child-like fashion); there is a great deal of restraint and subtlety in their playing and singing and the variety of textures that is in Reich's score is wonderfully realised - and as they are justifiably proud of noting on their website, Reich gives them a big "thumbs up" for their rendition.
Each Section is given a separate track (as are the opening and closing Pulses) which makes finding particular favourite moments that bit easier - some recordings of works this length (60 minutes) have been issued with only 1 track before now! The potentially dense textures are beautifully clarified by the faultless sound that allows seemingly infinite subtlety of expression and dynamic graduations. I had hoped for a recording that immerses one but a straight-forward image with this quality is more than adequate.
My only complaint is that there are no notes given at all about the music - merely a list of the performers and those involved in helping in the evolution of the ensemble and the recording process. Not everyone will know about Reich, the composition or its place in musical history. A great shame for those tempted to discover more - there are articles (by Reich himself) available on the internet but it should not have been too difficult to present a paragraph or two about the music.
This is a disc that deserves great success and I sincerely hope that this ensemble manages to record other works in this vein with similar vigour and assuredness.
Copyright © 2007 John Broggio and HRAudio.net
Review by John Miller - December 8, 2007
I'm adding to the plaudits already received by this disc, including a glowing endorsement from Steve Reich himself ("A gorgeous and stunningly accurate CD of Music for 18 Musicians, from the heartland to the heart"). Not only for the musical performance alone, but for the manner in which it was brought about. Students in the New Music Ensemble of Grand Valley State University in Michigan, under the mentor-ship of their indefatigable Director and conductor, Bill Ryan, spent a year working on this piece until it became a way of life for them. The SACD lacks sleeve notes, but the story of the recording can be found on the recording companies website at http://innova.mu/, and there are two YouTube videos, a trailer to the disc at http://youtube.com/watch?v=CHVMVDhC-UA&feature=related and some rehearsal clips at http://youtube.com/watch?v=GCZEckS5X94. It is always good to see the human beings who make the music that issues from our hi-fi systems!
Looking at the score of 'Music for 18 Musicians', once can see what a terrifying proposition is is for musicians, with a huge amount of accurate bar counting required, and intense concentration, not to mention stamina. Further difficulties arise in that a number of the players have to double on more than one instrument, although Reich notes in the score that other players can be employed. In fact 20 were used in this performance. The Grand Valley students lived with this music for a year, until it truly became a part of their lives. This shows in the buoyant nature of the rhythmic patterns and the affectionate phrasings of the interlocking melodic fragments which the GSU New Music Ensemble produce, making the piece very accessible and even endearing.
Music for 18 Musicians was a break-though for Reich in the 1970's as it moved his brand of minimalism into a new emotional phase. Much of the criticism of minimalism at the time was about its cold mechanical aspect. A rough visual analogy of the piece would be to stand very close to a large Jackson Pollock or Klee painting as it slowly moves past your eyes. You have to take the time to relax and let the music soak into you and hear the changes in colour as new instruments or groupings change the texture and colour. There are long crescendos and diminuendos which alter the level of tension in a kaleidoscopic fashion. The instruments are varied, with several tuned percussion members, deep wind instruments such as bass clarinets, as well as violin and cello. At one point, the addition of human voices adds a special frisson. In one sense, this piece is a concentration of Dance, and I found the performance to be joyful and exultant, reminding me that in Music Therapy, minimalism is an important tool.
Sonically, the disc is rather unique. In the first few seconds, I was a little disappointed that the direct sound of the instruments was not placed around the room, but then the energy of the repeated pitches and rhythms from various instruments audibly began to excite the recording space (and my own room), and a myriad of slowly pulsing reflections and interactions began to build up, which are reproduced mainly in the surround channels. I truly felt immersed in warm sound bath, a delightful sensation, and my brain imaged the musicians in an arc behind the front speakers, extending about half-way down the sides of my room. Reich himself commented on the psychoacoustic effects of '18 Musicians' in the liner notes of his early taping of the piece. In fact he himself simulates some of this by creating swells within the ensemble, particularly in the bass notes, which sound like the beats that occur when sounds of slightly different pitches alternately add and then cancel each other. It seems, then, that this sort of music was really waiting for a high-resolution, multi-channel technique to be recorded truthfully. In fact, it was set down as 24/96 PCM and mastered in DSD for SACD; the redbook CD layer was produced by down-sampling from the PCM.
I enjoyed this performance enormously and will certainly want to play it again and again. Not just those interested in 20th century classical music should explore it, but also jazz and rock fans. After all, minimalism has been a very influential movement, even moving into the pop world with techno.
Copyright © 2007 John Miller and HRAudio.net
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