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Music For 18 Musicians

Lawrence Bush
April 23, 2017

Steve Reich's entrancing minimalist masterpiece, "Music for 18 Musicians," had its premiere at New York's Town Hall on this date in 1976. The piece, which runs approximately one hour, involves six pianos, four xylophones, six marimbas, a vibraphone, violins, cello, clarinets, maracas, and four human voices; it is based on eleven chords and comprises a series of eleven "pulses" built on those chords. Rather than using a conductor, Reich used audible and visual prompts, mostly from the vibraphone and the bass clarinet, which cue both players and listeners to shifts in the music. Robert Christgau calls it a "mathematically ebbing-and-surging facsimile of eternal return" and "the great classic of minimalist trance, at once prettier and more austere than any Terry Riley or Philip Glass." "You experience Reich's music as much as you hear it," writes Jessie Rothwell at Classicalmpr.org. "It can have a bodily effect. I emerged from the theater feeling like I was in a dream-state. It wasn't even that I felt 'relaxed' exactly; I felt like the music had physically entered my body and had hammered everything into stillness." Reich received the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Music for his Double Sextet. His pieces with Jewish themes include "Tehillim," for voices and ensemble (1981), and "Different Trains," for string quartet and tape (1988). To hear "Music for 18 Musicians," look below.

"Steve Reich is both a startlingly original composer and a trailblazer. Some startlingly original composers are sui generis, isolated wonders. But the important ones cast long shadows. Steve’s experiments with phase music and the musical use of spoken fragments have alone opened the ears of many younger composers as well as some elderly ones like myself. In fact, stealing ideas from him is one of the more satisfying pleasures that I’ve had." --Stephen Sondheim

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.