Thursday, February 07, 2008

Music for 18 Musicians

Last Sunday while preparing for church, I listened to NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday as is my habit. Each week, just about the time I walk out the door, there is a final extended piece about an artist or a performance. This time it featured a generally unknown university music group, Grand Valley State University’s New Music Ensemble. Shortly after being formed the director announced they would be tackling Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians.

Before I sound too scholarly on modern classical music, I have to admit I’d never heard of Reich or the piece Music for 18 Musicians until that story on NPR. On the whole, I know more than many about 18th, 19th, and 20th century composers up until the 1950’s, but I’m certainly not a scholar in the genre. I know very little and listen to very little music from the latter half of the 20th century.

Nevertheless, there was something that transfixed me about the music clips from the feature. It was certainly not Beethoven or even Saint Saens. This is
Donnie Darko on speed. I could run to this music.

Tonight I downloaded it from iTunes and am sitting here listening to it. Modern composition generally does not move me. I find so much of it to be an academic experiment in tonal collision or atonality. Precisely for those reasons, I’m not largely a fan.

I’m writing this review as I listen to the music for the very first time. Normally I memorize a song or CD before I write about it. I could not wait that long. Ten minutes into the piece, I found that tears were streaming down my face and yet I had a pleasant, joyful smile across that same face. I was happy to overflowing and was totally enthralled by the piece.

My mind at this moment is focused on every percussive note in the forefront while stringed melodies slide in from the background.

I paused the music almost immediately after I started listening to it because my computer speakers clearly could not handle it, so I grabbed my favorite headphones so I could listen closely. One reason I like headphones for the best music is that when I’m listening, both ears are occupied, but the bulk of the tune fills my head. I can sit here with my eyes closed and “watch” the musicians play. Throughout Music, there are many instances when two of the same instrument are playing slightly different music and those occupy the ear while the other sixteen instruments/voices are crammed into my skull.

Sometimes I’m really glad Miss Davis didn’t let us look at our fingers when we learned to type. I can be absorbed in this piece and not worry about what is going on to my laptop screen.

Reich created a tune in which instrumental voices rise and fall throughout the piece and different instruments take the lead at various times. Sometimes the new instruments rush the stage and other times they are skulking about behind the scenes for a bit before one realizes they are even there. These melodies range from lullaby to frenzied metal. Something about the xylophone keeps even the most frenzied piece from inspiring anxiety in the listener. The cello contrasting violins in the background almost forces a sense of calm over the hammering xylophone.

I guess what strikes me most about it is the actual chant-like repetition of music. The repeated bars create a meditative, spiritual quality that rises above the sometimes chaotic sound. While in some cases the chaos comes from the two percussive, stringed, or woodwind instruments building into the same piece, the bars are the same and are repeated equally. Much like religious chant, the music draws one in a bit deeper with every repetition but does not allow one to sleep.

The first impression that I could run to this music has been replaced by the depth of meditation I feel with it. It has the tempo for running, but with the spirituality, I would become so engrossed I would fall off the trail. Music does not allow for quiet meditation, rather it inspires a meditative workout.

The piece just ended and I found myself letting out an extended sigh as though I had held my breath for entire hour of the performance. I want more but am resisting the urge to start over again. Honestly, I don’t know if I can take it.

You may be surprised at the idea that I have not decided if I like it or not. I do not have the frame of reference to really judge if it is a good piece or not so the decision will be purely emotional rather than scholarly. Since I mentioned earlier that the piece moved me to joyful tears as I sat enthralled, I guess I’ll have to go with an “I love it” on the emotional scale. Seriously – it is not often I can sit for an hour completely transfixed by anything, much less a classical piece I could be listening to through the stereo.
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