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Steve REICH (b. 1936)
Music for 18 Musicians (1976) [61:21]
Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble/Bill Ryan
rec. No date given, Royce Auditorium, St. Ceciliaís Music Center, Grand Rapids, MI. USA.
INNOVA 678 [61:21]
Experience Classicsonline

We have reached a period where music by composers who came of age in the 1970s, such as Steve Reich and Philip Glass, is played not only by their own ensembles, but by other groups and orchestras. While there have been a few notable recordings of Reichís music - not overseen by the composer - in the past decade, this key minimalist composerís music shows no sign of becoming part of the more general "classical" music repertoire. Reichís Music for 18 Musicians, considered to be the composerís seminal work and the one that got him attention outside the avant-garde, has been recorded by several groups other than the composerís. This new recording by the Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble shows that it is a work that remains vibrant today.

Music for 18 Musicians was a breakthrough work for Reich, not only because it was the first of his works to be scored for a relatively large group of musicians, but also because it was released on the "mainstream" ECM label. The work is in 14 parts, and is based around 11 chords, each of which develops small melodic phrases, before cycling back to a restatement of the original section. Lasting around an hour - Reichís original recording was just over 56 minutes - this work is mesmerizing and, at times, because of its pulsing rhythms, hypnotic. Yet it has a foot-tapping rhythm, and its micro-melodies are memorable; itís the kind of music you might want to hum or whistle, if you are so inclined.

This current recording by the Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble has received excellent reviews everywhere, and is a best-selling classical recording on the iTunes Store. Reich himself called it "A gorgeous and stunningly accurate CD".

Itís hard to compare recordings of Reichís compositions. The music does not allow much in the way of interpretive options, and Reich calling this CD "accurate" is probably the best praise one can give. The music itself demands precision and accuracy. One of the main selling points of this recording is the quality of its sound; something that, looking back, Reichís initial 1976 recording on ECM lacks. This hybrid CD - it plays in surround sound on an SACD player - offers a unique listening experience that other recordings do not.

However, much of the praise garnered by this recording seems to highlight the fact that this "all-student, all-volunteer band" was able to perform such a challenging work. This is like questioning Shakespeareís ability to write Hamlet because he was simply "a gloverís son". There is no reason why, with hard work and dedication, a group of talented musicians cannot perform a work like this, and the fruit of their dedication is present here. They certainly deserve recognition for their hard work. But that, in and of itself, is no reason to buy this recording of 18 Musicians rather than another. If the sound is the main criterion, either this recording, or Reichís 1997 recording on Nonesuch, are the discs of choice. The 1976 ECM recording sounds flat by comparison to either of these, though its slightly faster tempi give the music more drive. The 2004 live recording by the Amadinda percussion group suffers from, well, live sound. This present recording also has a more delicate balance among the instruments, which gives it a very good texture; the playing of this work reflects less an ensemble than a group of instruments playing together.

Needless to say, this is the most important work of minimalist music, and one that people should discover. Much more so than the work of Philip Glass, Steve Reichís music, while less well known - mostly because Reich doesnít compose film scores at a Dickensian rate - inspires and moves the listener. The hour you will spend with a recording of this work is an hour during which your mind will expand to new musical horizons. If you have never heard Music for 18 Musicians, go out and buy this recording now.

Kirk McElhearn

An excellent recording of the seminal work of minimalism ... see Full Review


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