Repeating Ourselves

I went to a nightclub last weekend to hear some music. Before the band came on, the PA was delivering Tortoise and Sigur Ros with a physical presence. The place filled up rapidly once the doors opened and was eventually packed beyond standing room, with the audience sitting on the floor, just inches away from the musicians and . . . the conductor?

Yes, it was at a nightclub, and the band was Signal, essentially a modern chamber symphony, and the music was all Steve Reich, “You Are (Variations)” and “Music for 18 Musicians.” And the club was a new venue in the Village Gate’s old spot, Le Poisson Rouge.

This is part of an interesting and exciting trend which is bringing chamber music, old and new, to non-concert halls and younger audiences. It’s a logical next step in the process that the Kronos Quartet unofficially began, as a pop-audiance friendly classical ensemble, and that I feel has really been pioneered by Matt Haimovitz, who made a brief career of playing the Bach Cello Suites in bars and nightclubs across the country. This is not so different than how “classical” music developed in front of audiences 200 years ago – contemporary music presented in front of contemporary audiences.

Reich’s music is particularly attractive to night club audiences – its propulsive, audible beat is immediately captivating, and his consonant harmonies and clear textures are attractive to the ear. He’s not easy-listening, of course, but rewarding listening, and “Music for 18 Musicians” is not just a masterpiece but one of the seminal works in the long history of Western Classical Music. I don’t feel this is an overstatement, it’s something that is reinforced every time I hear the work, or witness a performance. It is great music, certainly, exciting, beautiful and satisfying. It is also the major work of Minimalism, an important development in musical history. The piece is Reich’s personal synthesis of the music he loves – jazz, Bach, Stravinsky – but it also demonstrates a quality that John Cage sought, which is a music without climaxes. The piece begins, it proceeds, and then it ends, constantly flowing and evolving from one state to the other. There is no development as understood from music history, no narrative or drama, no rise and fall of events. Cage himself achieved this through techniques designed to eliminate the composer’s and musicians’ intentions, which is a fascinating and also highly problematic idea. Reich achieves this by writing the music he hears in his head and feels in his body.

I think his achievement cannot be separated from the dense structure of society. This book (which I have not yet read), appears to make that argument. Certainly America is a mechanize society, and if it manufactures less nowadays, it is still digitally mechanized (and computers are nothing but machine labor, performing repetitive heavy-lifting). So for anyone consciously living and working in America, this music is an expression of that experience. It communicates. An important idea it presents is that of cooperation and collaboration; the piece is broken down into sections, and the ensemble moves through each by following musical cues from the vibraphone (and in this performance at least the lead bass clarinet). There is also a constant pulse played on two marimbas, and the physical challenge of maintaining the same beat for an hour is such that some of the percussionists need to trade off the part for the sake of rest – although the marimba players in Signal kept up the pulse for most of the performance on their own, and seemed to be enjoying themselves. Much more than music led by a conductor, and even more than most chamber music, there is a sense of people working together towards a shared goal and enjoying the work. This is a community piece that draws all the participants together, which is one of the joys of a performance, especially in the middle of a season where there are hateful people who hope to split us apart in every way possible. “Music for 18 Musicians” is a seminal work because it present so many new possibilities.

Originally, Reich wrote this for his own, specialized ensemble, and the only way to hear it for about 25 years has been to be fortunate enough to catch his group. But a performing score now exists, which brings the piece beyond the experimental and places it into the repertoire of classical music. There are five recordings of it and three of those are by ensembles other than Reich’s group – and they are arguably better. Certainly the piece, and music itself, it better for it.

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