Tuesday, January 11, 2011

STEVE REICH: Music for 18 Musicians

Steve Reich - Music for 18 Musicians
Jesse Howell: I've listened to Music for 18 Musicians a number of times, and it doesn't ever seem to lose its impact. So when I woke up in the middle of the night, no longer able to sleep, putting on M418 seemed like a reasonable idea. So in that dead silence of early morning I snuck downstairs and slipped on a pair of headphones and got down to business.

What I quickly realized is that M418 may be the most successful abstract work of art, ever.

Abstract art is often non-representational, that is to say devoid of subject matter. Maybe it becomes just about color, or shapes, or texture. Maybe it is just about the sheer joy of slopping paint around on a blank canvas. Like a good abstract painting, M418 doesn't spell out how the listener is supposed to encounter it, or what meaning he/she should receive from it. However, it points to something. What that is isn't exactly clear, but there is a source involved, which is inspiration for the work. It invokes different responses out of different listeners: M418 is a blank canvas where the listener can paint his/her own meaning. The type of imagery that M418 evokes is vast and relatable to an audience in many different ways.

I think back to the times I have listened to M418 in the past. Sometimes I was alone, other times I was with a group of friends. Sometimes we just listened in silence, other times we talked as it played. What I can say about it is that in every encounter with this piece of music, something special has happened. M418 is the kind of piece that is transformative. It has the power to transform the listener, and at the same time is adaptive. M418 simultaneously absorbs and permeates any context. I remember listening to the piece with Michael Stohrer, and as we sat on the dorm floor we remarked how the sound of cars outside did not detract from the experience. No, in fact it added to the experience. In this way “noise” became part of the “music.” Thank you, Mr. Cage.

Michael Stohrer: Jesse pointed at things in the music while we listened, as if these sounds were happening in the space around us. The strange thing is that I always knew exactly what he was pointing at. We used to talk about the emotional content of this piece. Someone could dismiss this as “wallpaper” but like Jesse said, it is a blank canvas. I would say it’s more like a mirror. This music is too visceral to allow us to make meaning intentionally and cerebrally. What happens is spontaneous. During a joyful evening with friends, it percolates and swells with jubilance. During a lonely winter morning, it mourns and embraces the listener to offer comfort. It reflects whatever I bring to it: apprehension, love, agitation, reflection. The music is undecidable, each listener makes involuntary meaning with each unique encounter.

I don’t listen to it very often, maybe once a year or so, and nearly every listen through it sticks with me, including the very first: On my freshman floor we kept our doors open and I heard something coming from the room across the hall. It was a series of notes, repeated in a rapid cycle. I stuck my head though his door and asked my floormate Nathan “What is this music?” It was “The Grid” by Philip Glass. Eager to know more I asked the librarian later that afternoon and he told me, grinning, “We have some Philip Glass, but you don’t need that.” He led me to the CD racks. “What you need is THIS!” It was Music for 18 Musicians. Sitting on the industrial carpet in my dorm room, I listened on cheap headphones. That was a very short hour. The Philip Glass piece had shocked me with its uncompromising sterility, and while 18 didn’t sound entirely dissimilar (at that time I was totally unacquainted with the canon of minimalism), I couldn’t get over how warm and human Steve Reich’s composition was.

Jesse: M418 may be the most human piece of art. It is has the steady pulse of an assembly line or a freeway, but entirely organic. The patterns that comprise M418 have the life of a breath, gradually rising and falling. Phrases build gradually over time. The repetition and overlapping of phrases form patterns that interweave themselves and become much more complex than they would be on their own. The phrases are economical, not overly complex, but add up to a gestalt-y percussive sense of movement and poly-rhythm. There is an added sense of variation in tempo that I can only describe as human error, although hardly detectable, which adds to the celebratory and joyful nature of this work.

There is additional variety in the voices of the different instruments. The attack of a voice is different from a woodwind, from the mallet instrument or a stringed instrument. This variety is haptic, and you can feel your attention shift between these contrasting tonal qualities or textures. In this way the focal point is continually shifting, as no one instrument takes the lead, but gradually swells and falls like the others. Perhaps the most steady or continuous element is the mallet instrument that forms a sort of rhythmic framing for the piece.

It makes me wonder how I can translate that much hope life, change and dynamic breath into my own work. M418 makes it readily apparent how static or fixed imagery can be in other art works. How do you allow for more than one access point for viewer? More than one interpretation? More that one response? I go back to the thought of the adaptability of this piece of music, and its ability to fit in any context. M418 says it without saying too much.

I might be able to relate a couple of visual artists that evoke similar responses or share some characteristics to M418. I'm not sure if they approach the same totality of vision of M418, however. In the sense of the breath or life in M418, the artist
Oscar Munoz evokes a similar feeling; of ephemera, life/death and impermanence. And in the sense of economy and distilling a phrase down to its most basic blocks that point to something greater, I think of the artist Piet Mondrian.

Michael: I’ve always loved records that were pieced together unnaturally with special effects like overdubbing, editing, looping and time-stretching. These records are like animation, depicting sound events that never actually took place and creating surreal visuals - alien landscapes, amorphous nebulae… I can love a real-time recording of a performance - a good hard-bop record, for instance, can conjure a thousand emotions - but the visual is always that of musicians playing instruments in a room. Strangely, Music for 18 Musicians actually IS a recording of musicians (guess how many!) playing instruments in a room, but it conjures images that are incredibly alien and abstract. There’s something spatial to this music, something that allows Jesse to point to specific sounds. And without any imposing programmatic elements (I’m glad this piece isn’t called “Visions of Manhattan” or “Requiem for Gettysburg” or something like that) the inescapable visual element, created by each listener, is always new and changing.

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