When minimalism (as a style) gets a bad rap, it’s usually for pretentiousness (or perhaps “difficulty” – though it could be argued that the one is a tributary of the other). And while it’s understandable that casual listeners might be flummoxed by the subconscious tone poems of Phill Niblock or – to use the most famous example – Cage’s 4’33, it’s also true that when harnessed properly there is a great deal of beauty available in repetition, silence, and stasis.
Steve Reich went to Africa in the early 70s to study percussion and returned to compose two of his most notable works – 1971′s Drumming and 1976′s Music for 18 Musicians. While Drumming is a clear take on his Ghanan studies, Music for 18 Musicians is a masterwork. Simultaneously propulsive and ethereal, comprised of an ensemble with strings, mallets, pianos, woodwinds, and vocalists performing without a conductor, 18 Musicians is easily one of the most accessible pieces of work to emerge from the 20th Century avant garde.
Though not the first minimalist composition – that honor usually goes to Terry Riley’s In C – and perhaps not as gorgeous as Reich’s own Six Marimbas – a 1986 rearrangement of his earlier work Six Pianos – Music for 18 Musicians is nevertheless a seminal piece and one of the best entry points into the often esoteric world of 20th Century composition.
The opening sections of Music for 18 Musicians may be heard at Steve Reich’s website.
Note: This post references the LP version released on ECM in 1978. There are other versions available, including a 1997 recording on Nonesuch, in the library’s collection. The differences are, to me, mostly matters of taste – the ECM recording blurs the players into a murkier ensemble performance while the Nonesuch version has more distinct individual performances.
Phil Rollins, Learning Technologies Developer.