40 years ago, Steve Reich premiered Music for 18 Musicians at The Town Hall in New York City. The performance took place just a month after Reich had completed the piece, having worked on it for nearly two years. Arranged for 18 acoustical instruments, Music for 18 Musicians lasts for just under one hour, with each performance varying due to the unfolding nature of the temporal instructions in the score. Resembling the inward and outward movement of waves against a shore, each chord progression enters and exits for the duration of a breath, exhaled. In the accompanying programme notes, Reich describes in detail the relationship between rhythm, and harmony to melody in the piece, with references to the writings of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, Balinese gamelan music, West African drumming, and the polyphonic choral music of the medieval composer, Pérotin. The influence of the latter is most evident in the use of 11 chords that form the overall structure of the piece, which Reich describes as a “pulsing cantus”, played over various durations, at times stretched, inverted, or transposed.
Reich’s music epitomises the notion that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; perhaps best experienced in his tape loop pieces where two or more identical sound sources gradually shift out of phase with one another, revealing unintended, sonic by-products to the listener. While Music for 18 Musicians was a strong indicator of a transition from the minimalist clarity of his earlier musical processes — as outlined in his essay “Music as a Gradual Process” — towards a more personal and texturally rich sound, the imprint of those early works is still embedded within the piece. The difference is the surface now shimmers, lulling the listener in to its vast soundscape. It is no wonder that the piece would go on to become his most revered and recognised composition.
To celebrate Music for 18 Musicians, Simon Cullen (Lasertom, Ships), and Neil O’Connor (also known as Somadrone), will be performing a version of the piece arranged for 18 synthesisers. The project, initiated by Simon, is called Music for 18 Machines, and will include a visual response by Anthony Murphy from The Shadow Lab. I caught up with Simon and Neil, to hear about the development of the project and what we can expect in their upcoming performance; a performance that will not only introduce new ears to this iconic work, but also bring something new to those that know it well.
As musicians you’re both very familiar to people on these shores, and have been producing music under various guises over the years. Could you introduce yourselves for the uninitiated?
Have you worked together in the past?
S: Neil and I met in college in 2004. We may have known each other a little before this but it was through college we became friends. Up until now, most of our interaction has been in support of each other’s music. There have been a few minor and almost moments but nothing really to speak of. The closest we’ve worked together to date was last year. Neil invited me to mix his most recent Somadrone album.
N: We met when we were teenagers at a “Battle of the Bands” in Bayside. Years later we crossed paths when we were in the same class on Trinity’s MA in Music and Media Technologies. Simon mixed my last album, Oracle, and has done live sound a number of times. This is our first major project together.
Simon, take us through how Music for 18 Machines came about.
S: It came about quite gradually, which I suppose is fitting given that it’s a Steve Reich piece. I would say it has been tumbling about my brain for more than a few years, such a long time in fact that lately I’ve been wondering how it got there in the first place. The idea stuck with me long enough that I bought the book version of the score to study. Over time I would revisit the idea and slowly worked out how it would be possible. I discovered a few pieces of software and technology, which helped me figure out this electronic or synthesised version. When I finished transcribing the score to a midi version I realised I would need help pulling it off live. That’s when Neil came on board. His synth prowess and love of Steve Reich, multiplied by our friendship, made him the perfect partner for the performance.
How did you first become familiar with Steve Reich’s work? Stylistically, what elements are you drawn to in his music?
S: It was through the Music and Media Technology course in Trinity College. The history of modern music was part of the study program and Steve Reich is one of our greatest living composers, so he got a few mentions.
N: Back in the MA in Trinity, hearing the piece first was such a big thing for me. The large amount of percussion drew me in. It was so akin to dance music; slow moving sections, minimal. But the key was hearing it live a few times, the phasing between the instruments was like nothing I heard before.
S: For me it’s the way he highlights and lays bare the processes and ideas he employs. For example, in some of his phase pieces, you’ll hear two sources of the same sound slowly moving out of time with each other. This upfront presentation of the process becomes quite obvious, but it’s the sounds he chooses, the melodies and rhythms, that really move me to a place beyond the process. I see this as a very honest approach to writing and also find it generous of spirit. When I listen to Reich, I’m learning about music and enjoying it at the same time.
In the context of Reich’s body of work, Music for 18 Musicians is often considered his breaking away from a minimalist style, towards a maximalist one. While studying the score as a performer, has it brought to light certain aspects of his compositional style that you hadn’t been aware of before?
S: Yes it has. Looking through the score and figuring out voices and patterns while listening to the recording has been eye opening to say the least. Seeing it written in notation and then writing out MIDI note sequences has helped me better understand how it works as a whole. It can be easy to get lost in his music. It is often trancelike and disorienting, in a nice way, but studying this score has helped bring this piece more into focus. In terms of it being a change in his writing style, I see as many similarities as there are differences to his earlier work. In many ways it is an expansion of ideas contained in previous works.
N: Learning how the instruments work with one another, discovering which ones lead and which ones take a background or foreground position, seeing how the instruments interlock with one another. Looking at the score and listening to a live version, the dynamical control by the players is so well controlled. We have tried to achieve some of these elements in the live rendition.
Other than amplification and some interesting microphone techniques used by the vocalists, the instrumentation for Music for 18 Musicians is solely acoustical. Simon, why did you want to realise the piece with electronic instrumentation—specifically an ensemble of synthesisers?
S: What I remember thinking when I heard the piece first was that it sounded otherworldly, nothing like what I had heard before, and for some reason I perceived and assumed it to be electronic. It was back when I started the course in Trinity, when I was more naive, or less informed as a listener. On realising that it was an acoustic piece of music, it struck me how I might have first considered it to be electronic. This idea stayed with me. In terms of the electronic instrumentation and landing on a synth ensemble, it’s simply because the piece requires eighteen people to play, so why not use eighteen electronic machines. Using the older synths was a starting point. Some of the ones we are using date back to around the time the piece was written, and it felt like a way to connect our electronic version to this time. The original piece requires four pianos, three marimbas, two xylophones, two bass clarinets, violin and cello, as well as the 18 performers themselves, and it seemed fitting to recreate this physical stage presence in a way.
Will you be performing all sections of the piece?
N: We have notated the score as MIDI representation in Ableton, and have also been consulting the score throughout the rehearsals.
S: Where we’re at now we are certainly sticking to the hymn sheet, but it’s still very much a work in progress, and as we go we are making our own choices. We’re not looking to morph the piece into something unrecognisable. We’re really just experimenting with a different instrumentation.
Audible or visual cues are built in to a lot of Reich’s music, to indicate a section change or bar change. What have you incorporated as a call to change pattern?
S: Having studied the score and learned the function and implementation of cues and changes, it has become clear that in some ways our approach is not restricted by them. For example one of the instructions for the vocalists and clarinets is to sing a sequence for as long as the breath lasts. Using synthesisers, we are not restricted by this instruction. However, this human physical limitation brings a flow to the piece, and we are being mindful of its influence. The original score itself doesn’t have a definitive form, so the structure of each performance is slightly different. We’re not trying to create a definitive electronic version of it either. If we ever do it again, I’m 100% sure it’ll be different. One sonic element we are definitely sticking to is the vibraphone, which announces each change in section, and at times, changes in dynamic direction within a section. The Yamaha DX7 is our vibraphone.
N: The DX7 acts as our conductor of sorts, but we will frantically be keeping control of the chaos behind the scenes.
Could you both introduce some of the synths that form the ensemble and describe the characteristics that lend themselves well to specific parts?
S: Mostly we tried to stick to a selection of vintage analogue synthesisers for a couple of reasons. They each have unique sonic characteristics and we used this to help create a distinct personality for each part. They are quite striking pieces of technology too, both in size and design. Using them as part of the stage presentation became intrinsic to the performance. We’re triggering sound from them via MIDI note messages from a computer, so the keyboards themselves will not be played by hand. Instead, Neil and I will be doing some sound shaping live. In this way, having them face the audience was important. In a way we are kind of exposing this part of our process for all to see. Four Moog Voyagers and two Moog Minitaurs will be taking care of the bass clarinets and voices. Marimbas, Xylophones and two of the pianos are being voiced by the Juno 60, Juno 106 and JX3P’s, and the other pianos are voiced by Korg Poly 800s. The shakers are still being pondered upon.
N: The Korg Poly 800s are an important addition. They also represent the bass clarinets and drive a lot of the pulse. The Yamaha DX7 is the vibraphone; its character is very distinctive. The Korg MonoPoly is the string ensemble. We chose that synth because of its tone — very lush — and we could control its character of attack, decay and sustain. It also has a chorus that sounds like butter. It’s basically eleven Japanese synths versus seven American synths — Japan wins!
How have the rehearsals been going?
N: Overall, they’ll be going around 12 full days. It’s a long set up time, three or four hours, then we have considerations of voicing, effects, spatialisation and dynamical control. Getting them all in tune can be trying too; some of the analogue synths suffer from pitch drift as when the oscillators heat up they can detune.
S: The rehearsals have been a mix of technical workouts and sonic expeditions. We’re conscious of the possibilities, but we’re looking for a middle ground between what is possible with the set up we’ve got without straying too far from the character and textures of the original. It’s completely possible to use the MIDI notes to create an entirely abstract version that could be interesting in its own way, but staying true to the score and the way it was arranged is important to us at this early stage too.
There’s also a visual component to the project. What is involved in the performance setup, and how does the visual element connect with the music?
S: We’re working with Anthony Murphy from The Shadow Lab on visualising elements of the score. The piece is a refined balance of rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic patterns. Visualising some of these patterns in time to the music is something we hope will connect the piece to people in a new way. We’re still refining elements of this so it’s hard to be specific without giving too much away. Suffice to say, we’re aware that an engaging part of the acoustic performance is watching the musicians perform. The focus and endurance is captivating. In its absence we are exploring different ways to account for its impact.
N: The performance is also a great opportunity for people who are into electronic music production to get into more contemporary classical music. Steve Reich’s influence on the genre is huge. Also, if you’re interested in buying an analogue synth, it’s a good opportunity to come and hear one at full volume!
Music for 18 Machines will be performed at 8pm on Thursday 15th September at the Button Factory with tickets costing €15.
Words: Sharon Phelan
Photos: Killian Broderick