REICH Music for 18 Musicians
As recently as the mid 1990s it seemed inconceivable that Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians would be performed and recorded by any ensemble other than his own group of highly trained, skilled and accomplished musicians. After all, this 60 minute work – one of the most significant and groundbreaking compositions of the late 20th century – was written very much with Steve Reich and Musicians in mind.
How times have changed. Since the landmark 1978 ECM release (which remains a benchmark for future recordings), one can now select from any number, including Ensemble Modern (RCA, 6/99), the Amadinda Percussion Group (Hungaroton, 6/91), the Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble (Innova) and now Ensemble Signal directed by Brad Lubman.
Reich has described this recording as ‘extraordinary’ and he’s usually right about performances of his music. Signal’s technical control and precision, combined with Lubman’s ability to project the broad sweep of the work’s internal dimensions, is sustained throughout the recording. Take the opening ‘Pulses’ section, for example, where the work’s foundations are set out in a gradually unfolding sequence of 11 harmonically related chords. Ensemble Modern move purposefully through the sequence and arrive at the end of the cycle well within the five-minute mark. The Grand Valley Ensemble, on the other hand, impart smooth, almost dream-like transitions between each chord, resulting in a drawn out, slow-motion effect. Ensemble Signal manage to do both by increasing the music’s pulse rate while at the same time slowing down its harmonic rhythm, which results in an opening section that clocks in at almost five and a half minutes.
The group demonstrates its true quality during the middle sections of the work, however. Drive and momentum are applied to the tonic-dominant pendulum heard at Section IIIA, while Section V’s contrapuntal combinations are perfectly judged. Lubman ensures that the tempo remains buoyant during Sections VI VIII (the so-called ‘maracas’ sections), and convincingly negotiates the somewhat tricky transition from Section XI back to the closing ‘Pulses’ section.
So does this recording present the final word on Reich’s masterwork? Not a bit of it. Previous recordings have shown how performances of so-called minimalist music can produce diverse and contrasting interpretations. Ensemble Signal’s new recording proves that there are still plenty of secrets to be revealed in this music.