Simple but not easy: Taking Steve Reich’s Music for 18 musicians as an example After World War II, there were two alternative paths through the musical avant-garde. One follows the twelve-tone composing technique of Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern, which is the path of serialism. The other is “chance music”, which was created by John Cage and is based on the philosophy of I-Ching. Serialism and aleatorism are the mainstream genres of 20th century music. Serialism composers aimed to put notes, chords, harmonies, melodies, dynamics, texture, meter and so on, in tedious order and detailed organization.
Meanwhile, aleatorism composers did not want to control every aspect of a performance and left some interpretive freedom to the performers as these composers welcomed spontaneity. The compositional ideas and methods between serialism and aleatorism music are opposite but acoustically similar. Neither of them use tonic keys, ordinary rhythms or specific melodies. In contrast to both seralism and aleatorism, Minimalism broke the rules of composing during the late 60s in America.
Minimalists tried to avoid composing in strict orders and using complicated rules by use of simple patterns and rhythms which are continuously repeated –also known as loops. The use of simplistic elements was an attempt to revive traditional composition methods and combine contemporary aspects so as to create both modern and postmodern music. The development of Minimalism plays an important role as both serialism and aleatorism in the 20th century music. What is minimalism? Like impressionism, minimalism was borrowed from visual arts.
Similar to impressionism, it was initially used with derision. The most distinguished minimalists are La Monte Young and Terry Riley, who are both considered as the first generation of minimalism. Steve Reich and Philip Glass, who both came from the second generation, developed and enriched the composition methods of minimalism. Although most minimalists are “impatient” with the term, only Young satisfactorily accepts the term “minimalism” to describe his earliest compositions. Scholars and minimalist composers often disagree with each other, as scholars consider minimalist music as ambiguous.
However, in consideration to its development, the minimalists gave plenty of new ideas and pushed for the evolution of 20th century music. Minimalism is also known by some scholars as process music, phase music, pulse music, system music, and repetitive music (among others). Repetition is the most important musical and composing technique of this style. Unlike the use of repetition in Western classical music, which is used in “context of a dramatic form”, its use in minimalism is “the one used to create what Glass has called ‘intentionless music’, which replaces goal-oriented directionality with absolute stasis”.
With these repetitions, the structure of music is changing and music moves forward, which is called “musical process” by Steve Reich, one of the most important representative composers in Minimalism music. Steve Reich was born in New York in 1936 and is considered as “our greatest living composer” by The New York Times. He is one of most impressive American composers in 20th century music. His compositions influenced many contemporary composers and inspired other emerging musical genres.
As audience members become more willing to spend time and money on pop and jazz music instead of serious music, Reich’s music gives concert-goers more options and ideas of new music in the 20th century. Conforming to the minimalist style, repetition is frequently used in his music. With his use of repetition, he also emphasized the connection between music and the audibility of audience. He said that “to ensure that audibility, the process must unfold very systematically and very slowly”. In an essay, he wrote: I’m interested in perceptible processes.
I want to be able to hear the processes happening throughout the sounding music. To facilitate closely detailed listening, a musical process should happen extremely gradually… so slowly that listening to it resembles watching the minute hand on a watch—you can perceive it moving after you stay with it a little while. The delivery of sound and movement in music was among Reich’s priority, especially in his early compositions. However, many individuals and scholars did not like Reich’s use of repetition as they felt that his music is too static and lacks movement.
Michael Tilson Thomas, the conductor of the premiere of Reich’s Four Organs in 1971 in Boston’s Symphony Hall, said: I still remembered threats being shouted during the performance, and one elderly lady banged her shoe on the edge of the stage in an attempt to stop the music. Another member of the audience ran down the aisle, screaming “All right- I’ll confess! ” In contrast from his early composition and other Minimalists’ music, Reich tried to break a lot of rules in composition. In his Music for 18 musicians and his later compositions, Reich sought to make minimalist music more fun and creative.
Music for 18 musicians is one of the milestone compositions of Steve Reich in his career. It could also be said that this piece is a peak achievement of Reich’s between 1965 and 1976. According to compositional techniques and methods, these are several innovations that can be introduced. Looking back at Reich’s early compositions, from his first mature composition It’s Gonna Rain, which was composed in 1965 and completed in the 1970s, Reich focused more on musical structure in order to make the music more audible to the listeners.
As mentioned earlier, this is a common compositional technique that is often used in his early compositions. In general, he wants his audience to catch every step and detail, which gradually changes, and feel his musical process through their auditory senses. But for Music for 18 musicians, he broke his traditional composition rules. In contrast from Reich’s early compositions, the instrumentation, harmony and structure of Music for 18 musicians are all new. First of all, Reich broke the rules on traditional minimalist musical structure, which is clearness and singleness.
Instead of showing a clear and easy understandable structure, Reich focused more on the texture and expression of music. The music lasts about 60 minutes with 748 measures, but there is no stop during this musical process, which is a new conception of composing –the extension of music. In his music, Reich tried to explore the use “of underpinning a repeated melodic pattern by rhythmically shifting chord changes, especially used the cycle of eleven chords as the base of the structure of Music for 18 musicians, which is built on a mode of seven pitches in three sharps (see Ex. ).
Example 1: This structure of chords is used as a foundation in the entire Music for 18 musicians, which consists of three parts –the introduction, main sections, and coda (see Ex. 2). As seen in the structure, these chords serve as the functional harmony in the introduction. The musical process and elements in main sections and Coda serve as an extension from the harmonies in the introduction. The structural idea in Music for 18 musicians is a first attempt for Reich in his music compositions.
On one hand, these eleven chords are the foundational elements of the entire piece as it serves as the basis of musical movement and progression. On another hand, Reich takes each chord from example 1 and uses it as a foundation in a new section –thus establishing interconnection between each of the sections. The functional progress is repeated three times so as to organize the structure within the music. This is a new compositional technique, which was not previously used in Reich’s early compositions or any other contemporary music.
Example 2: Introduction (Pulse) Main sections Coda (Pulse) 11 chords 11 sections 11 chords (Recap. ) I-II-III-IV-V-VI-VII-VIII-IX-X-XI I-II-III(A/B)-IV-V-VI-VII-VIII-IX-X-XI I-II-III-IV-V-VI-VII-VIII-IX-X-XI mm. 1-96 mm. 97-663 mm. 664-748 In the main sections, each section is based on one chord among the eleven chords. These eleven sections are isolated from each other but they are also connected by the structure of these chords. There are two structures simultaneously used within the main sections. Vertically, there are two parts performing in each section –puling figures and panels.
On one hand, pulsing figures are played by pianos and mallet instruments. These two figures serve as permanent patterns, which are constant and played as background music. On another hand, panels change all the time as the “melody” is played in the foreground –which pushes music forward. It is worth mentioning that there are two techniques used in developing the process of panels. The first technique is the use of a repeated ostinato. The other technique is based on the repetition of a single note. Simultaneously, additional notes are incrementally incorporated one at a time –thus enriching the chord and timbre.
For instance, in example 3 the clarinet begins the pattern by using single notes first, and then develops the same pattern with the addition of a new note –hence, creating intervals. Furthermore, the clarinet exchanges the voices to make the sound brighter and richer. Consequently, Reich’s original motive becomes a new one with the incorporation of new note. It becomes another new motive with the use of voice exchange. By adding and enriching the panels, the voices change and so the palette is different and new. The form of these eleven sections can be divided either by arch form or musical process.
Arch form means the structure is written in A-B-C-B-A or A-B-C-D-C-B-A. This symmetrical structure is another technique that is used in Reich’s composition in order to emphasize musical material, rhythm and texture. The elements from each section begins and ends in the same pattern. In the main sections, section I, IIIA/B, VI, VII and VIII are written in this pattern. Musical process is the compositional method that gives a forward motion to the music. This is usually written in A-B-C-(and so on) form, and it develops and varies the motive in section II, IV, V, IX, X, XI.
Reich recycles these two forms into a radical pattern not only to make the music move forward but to also enrich the sound and texture. Each section within the main sections is also a sequential variation of each part from one of the eleven chords in the introduction. Example 3: The instrumentation is emblematic for Music for 18 musicians. The instrumentation of Music for 18 musicians is new in the number and distribution of instruments: violin, cello, two clarinets, double bass clarinet, four women’s voices, four pianos, three marimbas, two xylophones and vibraphone (with no motor). All instruments are acoustic.
The use of electronics is limited to microphones for the voices and some of the instruments. For instrumentation, one of the most remarkable ideas is the use of cues in each part. This serves as a signal for the entrance of the next phrase without the help of a conductor (see Ex. 3). In example 4, which is selected from part II of the main section, the bass clarinets give a cue in measure 100 to signal the vibraphone to join the chamber orchestra. Here, it is recognized that the bass clarinets and vibraphones play an important role in leading the entire chamber orchestra as a conductor.
In example 4, cues are written in detail to inform performers when to join and leave the chamber orchestra, and the number of times (eg. “7-11x” in ex. 3) to play. Reich wrote the numerical range of times that need to be performed rather than notating an exact number. This effect creates more flexibility and freedom within the music and for the performer. Example 4: Other than the use of cues, there is another noteworthy idea regarding the instrumentation of the music. The timbre in the pulsing figure is another new acoustic experience for an audience as it switches between two different sets of combination of instruments.
The first set combines both pianos and marimbas in part I and II in the main section which is Set A in example 5. In Set B, both xylophones and marimbas are combined. From example 6, which is the beginning of IIIA section, this is the first time that xylophones take over the piano part and performs with the marimbas. In the score, it is easy to see that xylophones join the chamber orchestra step by step and the pianos gently fade out of the chamber orchestra. And finally, xylophones and marimbas play together as the pulsing figure of the music.
The use of voice changing, or switching between two different timbres, is still based on repetition. Reich only used two groups of different timbres so that the music progresses but maintains a stable structure. From the auditory, listeners can hear not only the development of the music but also the unification and repetition of Minimalist music. Set A B A B A Section I, II IIIA IIIB,IV V,VI,VII,VIII IX,X,XI Instrument Piano, Marimba Xylophones, Marimba Piano, Marimba Xylophones, Marimba Piano, Marimba Example 5: Example 6: Lastly, the rhythm of the human breath is another new idea in this composition.
Rhythm of the human breath” means the rhythm is based on the natural breath of human, especially for wind players and vocal performers. They can finish one phrase within a full breath for as long as their breath will comfortably sustain them. As the composer himself described it in the note of his composition, he said: This combination of one breath after another gradually washing up like waves against the constant rhythm of the pianos and mallet instruments is something I have not heard before and would like to investigate further.
This kind of rhythm is based on the natural breath of human and does not intend to cause performers lose their breath during a performance. Reich believes that this is the most natural way to express music –using the most natural rhythm, the rhythm of breath, to articulate musical phrasing. In example 7, using the pattern of breathing, the dynamics changes from soft to strong. Vocal performers change their breath every three measures and use one measure as a break while the string players take four measures as a phrase.
Example 7: In conclusion, Music for 18 musicians is one of the most important compositions in Steve Reich’s career. He discovered and created a lot of new composing techniques based on Minimalist music. This composition also shows that the composer has unique musical ideas and an outstanding composing style. No matter the structure, harmony, rhythm or instrumentation, it has plenty of new methods that can be used as reference for other composers –especially for young composers to learn. This is a big contribution that Reich gave to the 20th century music and us.