UMS: Steve Reich @ 80 / by Doyle Armbrust

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I’d like to ask you participate in an experiment.

No, not like that “totally safe” pharmaceutical study you did for beer money in college.

Sometime this week, I’d like you to buy or cue up a copy of Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, pull on a pair of headphones, and do a task. Any task. Could be alphabetizing the spice rack, climbing the email Everest toward inbox zero, or making collections for your bookie operation. When you’re done, ask yourself: If opting for a mundane task, did time seem to slip by more effortlessly? If attempting a creative task, did thoughts organize themselves more readily than they usually do?

If I might be so bold, would you visit and post the response “Yes” or “No?” If you’d like to be more specific, about what you were doing and the experience of doing it accompanied by this “soundtrack,” that would be tremendous. This is science. Well, armchair science…but using an armchair that Neil deGrasse Tyson would think is pretty comfy.

Here’s the thing. Beyond a profound love for the music itself, a majority quotient of my musician and writer colleagues believe that this pathcarving work increases productivity more than just about any other piece in the repertoire. It is on heavy rotation when deadlines loom, and annually on the evening of April 14 ($).

This piece isn’t just classical music’s life-hack answer to the standing desk or a ping-pong table in the break room, though. Music for 18 Musicians is best experienced live because it is so phenomenally transparent, this connection between movement and sound you are about to witness. Watching the mesmerizing oscillation of mallet heads striking marimbas, flexed fingers feverishly casting 6 wizardly spells on piano ivories, and the pulsating throats of the vocalists — it’s as though the sound waves are being projected from the lighting booth above you. Ripples are visible across the stage as chords mutate, their insides foaming out before the tide pulls them back in.

Part of what makes this piece so extraordinary is its confluence of the mechanical and the organic. The pulse is methodical, dependable even, and given how much of our world is built on cyclic rhythms (the circadian cycle, the oxygen cycle, the calling-yourInternet-Service-Provider cycle), it stands to reason that we are drawn toward repetition. But our humanness is also wonderfully chaotic — often asymmetric and unpredictable and in constant negotiation with our environment. Here’s where things get organic. The real-time breath capacity of the bass clarinet is at times dictating how long each chord is sustained, which makes this performance you’re about to hear singular…and dependent, in part, on how strictly Eighth Blackbird clarinetist Michael Maccaferri has been adhering to his Jazzercise regimen.

That Reich conjures this kaleidoscopic panorama with just 11 primary chords, moving from plucky optimism of Section I, through the nervous deliberations of Section VII, and into the positively euphoric waterfall of Section X. We are guided so gently, so seamlessly, through these and the surrounding movements that time stretches and inverts even though the performers are offering us a metronome at every given moment. If you find yourself wondering how this musical amoeba holds together, keep an eye on Doug Perkins there on the vibraphone. His licks denote movement forward to the rest of the ensemble. In the words of the composer, “much as in Balinese gamelan a drummer will audibly call for changes of pattern in West African music.”

If you are the kind of person that walks back to your car 4–5 times at a pop to make sure it is locked, you may find yourself feeling very satisfied at the conclusion of Music for 18 Musicians. (Except that now you’re wondering.) In any case, one reason may be that Reich turns to the obsessive’s catnip known as arch form (ABCDCBA) in a number of the piece’s sections. It’s a theme shared with this evening’s other selection, Sextet, the five movements of which also form an arch (ABCBA).

Quick sidebar: if you’d like to dig into arch form elsewhere, see Bartók’s fourth and fifth string quartets, Lutosławski’s Musique funèbre, or get your melancholy on with Barber’s Adagio for Strings.

If Music for 18 Musicians is a kind of field recording of our interior rhythms and cycles, Sextet is the music of the metropolis. The opening, “I. Fast,” could convincingly be the default soundtrack playing inside the first commercially available driverless car, its buoyant marimba canons and “Balinese gamelan music cro ss-dressing as Minimalism.” —David Bowie, on Music for 18 Musicians 7 shimmering bowed vibraphones offering promises of a brighter future. Whereas the sections of Music for 18 seem to melt into each other, the five continuous movements of Sextet are marked by abrupt, seismic hits in the pianos. Maneuvering between movements feels a bit like entering a series of breathtaking skyscraper lobbies and having the pressure vacuum of your entry slam the door behind you every time. For example, the fourth movement, “Moderate,” is a groovy 1970s building in which slithering synthesizers conjure up images of decadent, persimmonhued sofas and spherical glass chandeliers. Skyscrapers or not, each of these movements feel towering and spacious, arriving by way of a kind of echo effect between instruments — canons and double-canons. Watching this unfold, especially between like pairs of instruments is instant, transcendent meditation.

You know that thing we do in classical music…where during a preconcert talk the speaker reads some below-the-belt review from the 19th century about the premiere of a piece that is now near-universally adored? The audience chuckles knowingly and scoffs at the critic’s idiocy. Well, rash judgments about new music aren’t relegated to previous centuries. When I was a viola fellow at the New World Symphony, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas was rehearsing us in front of Steve Reich, live via Internet 2 (think: a souped-up Skype video call). MTT was reminiscing with his buddy Steve that back when they were performing Steve’s music a few decades earlier, audiences would literally try to overwhelm the performers with their booing during their shows. Steve Reich. The guy that won the Pulitzer in 2009. The guy that the New Yorker calls “the most original musical thinker of our time.”

If the music you hear tonight sounds provocative to you…you’re right! If you happen to be the kind of person that gives Reich albums to friends who claim they don’t like new music, because Reich is the most effective gateway drug…you’re also right! Either way, I hypothesize that you’ll leave this concert feeling like your brain and your body are burning brighter and noticeably more in sync.

Now for that in-home trial. Let me know.

– Doyle Armbrust