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CD Feature/ GVSU New Music Ensemble: "Steve Reich - Music for 18 Musicians"

img  Tobias

On some truly special occasions, a piece of music really lives up to the promises made by the composer in his introductory notes.”The breath is the measure of the duration of their [i.e. the player’s] pulsing. 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 (...)” Steve Reich wrote at the time of the publication of “Music for 18 Musicians” and the work that went with this powerful picture was every bit as exciting, poetic and seminal as its description.

On the occasion of Steve Reich’s 70th birthday as well as the 30th anniversary of “18 Musicians”, the New Music Ensemble of the Grand Valley State University has dared to challenge the manifold recordings of ths piece (including, of course, Reich’s own on ECM in the 70s) with a rendition that claims to be “farm-fresh”, to sound “as though you were hearing it for the first time in your life” and to have found “new roots in the heartland”. Have they gone mad?

One of the hardest pieces to just play correctly
By all means, we don’t mean to be disrespectful. But up until 2006, the New Music Ensemble didn’t even exist. And “Music for 18 Musicians” has been known as one of the hardest pieces to just play correctly – let alone play it enthrallingly. But as long as the talent’s there, you can’t beat a vision. And Bill Ryan, the musical director of the ensemble had one.

For an entire year, he turned Reich’s music into the sole focal point for his musicians. They would wake up with it, live with it and go to bed with it, until it became an integral part of their body. What the group ended up with were empathically applauded concerts and a recording that had Steve Reich moved. And truly, there are many reasons to be proud.

Plenty of Breath

For one, their interpretation is not just a copy of one of the many renowned blueprints. In the hands of the New Music Ensemble, “Music for 18 Musicians” turns into a soft and warm undulation, in which the psychoacoustic effects that Reich doated on in his original liner notes and which he featured prominently in the ECM taping, have turned into a glistening shimmer on top of an airy and wavy aural hillscape. The Jazz connotations in the brass section and the voices are more prominent than ever before and there is a mood of pastoral beauty running through this version.

And secondly, because the performers have realised that the score is not just about rhythm, it is about colour, melody, harmony, groove and time as well. Most of all, however, it is about breath and the Grand Valley students have plenty of it. They take almost five minutes more than Reich back in 1978 and this awards the music a spaciousness and sense of freedom that may not have been heard before.

The ensemble plays “18 Musicians” like a medium, as if the music were constantly reinventing itself in every instant. There is no distance between the music and the performers, who seem to be stunned and overwhelmed by wave after wave of breaths washing up against the shore of their pulses again and again. Their album is a document of will and of determination, just as much as it is a statement of love and passion. It sounds improbable, but it’s true: In this case, the music really lives up to the promises in the press release.  

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: GVSU New Music Ensemble
Homepage: Innova Recordings

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