Terry Riley’s works might be some of the first examples of minimalist music, but of all minimalist music that of Steve Reich (b.1936) definitely best embodies the movement, and none of his work does this better than Music for 18 Musicians. Published in 1976, Music for 18 Musicians is an hour-long piece written for a minimum of eighteen percussionists, vocalists, pianists, clarinetists, and string instrumentalists. However, because of its length, and the fact that all of the parts play nonstop for the entire duration, it is usually played with multiple players taking turns on each part.
In Music for 18 Musicians, Reich builds on the techniques used by Riley in In C, but also adds his own distinctive style. Like in In C, the performers are given a set of repetitive figures (called “cells”) to play, but much less is left to their discretion, as they are given directions on how and when to enter and drop out to make their parts interlock in the desired fashion. Instead of a conductor, Reich calls for specific musical cues in the vibraphone to indicate to the ensemble when major changes in the music are supposed to occur, as well as visual cues among the musicians. The piece is based on a cycle of eleven chords, and is broken into eleven sections, or “pulses”, each of which is based on a single chord.
Music for 18 Musicians was extremely important for minimalist music, and helped redefine the boundaries between American and European music, as well as the direction of contemporary art music. Music for 18 Musicians represents a milestone in the development of the minimalist movement, and in the attempts by many American composers to create genres of art that are purely American. However, for music that is supposedly so distinctly American, Reich used a lot of international influences, such as the coöperative group mentality and repetition of musical fragments from Indonesian gamelan ensembles and West African drumming, about which he learned during a trip to Ghana in 1970.
In writing this piece, Reich aimed to create what he called “beautiful music”, exemplifying yet again the common theme of public relatability in American art music. This is something in which he was apparently successful, as the original recording of the piece sold over 100,000 copies in the first two years, and even gained popularity among rock musicians, being named one of the best pop albums of 1978. Another way in which Reich makes this piece more relatable is by incorporating the sound of human breath into the music itself, making it seem more human. This and the repetition of material contribute to the piece’s hypnotic (or psycho-acoustic) texture, which can be associated with the hippie counterculture of San Francisco, where Reich lived, working closely with Terry Riley and Philip Glass.
Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians is recognized as one of the most important works of music written in the late 20th century. It was an extremely important piece in the development of the minimalist movement, and helped determine the direction of American art music. It was largely responsible for introducing much of the public to minimalist music, and it remains quite popular today.
- Reich’s original program notes:
- Some news articles and program notes:
- A student paper:
- A website dedicated to the piece:
- Wikipedia’s article on the subject:
- A performance by eighth blackbird and Third Coast Percussion, among others: