> Colin Currie GroupSteve Reich “Music for 18 Musicians”Tokyo Opera City Concert Hall2023.4.21-22

Colin Currie Group
Steve Reich “Music for 18 Musicians”
Tokyo Opera City Concert Hall

Written by Keizo Maeda|2023.7.7


Before the performance, the lobby was enveloped in an atmosphere of feverish excitement. It was as if we were at the opening reception for a major artist’s exhibition at a contemporary art museum, an unusual mood that was quite different from that you typically get at a classical concert hall. This atmosphere was clearly the product of the great anticipation and passion of the audience, who were eager to experience with their own eyes and ears the live performance of New York-born composer Steve Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians” (1974–76).

Those expectations were not betrayed. The first half of the concert featured “Double Sextet” (2007), played by 12 performers, and the Japan premiere of “Traveler’s Prayer” (2020), a new piece co-commissioned by the Tokyo Opera City Cultural Foundation and completed, in Reich’s own words, with a new compositional approach he had never tried before. The two pieces in the first half made for a unique opportunity to experience Reich’s recent work. Especially the premiere of the new piece, “Traveler’s Prayer,” demonstrated the composer’s deep understanding of tone and sound, including vocals; harmony and tonality, which are major characteristics of his music; and pulse and rhythm, which are the elements that make music what it is. The performance was outstanding, proving once again that Reich possesses a highly subtle and perceptive sense of all these aspects.

The second half of the concert featured the evening’s main attraction, “Music for 18 Musicians.” At the back of the stage stood four concert grand pianos. In front of them were placed marimbas, xylophones, and a vibraphone, and in front of these two female vocalists sat on each side, with a violin and cello on the left and two clarinets on the right completing the irregular arrangement. (One might add that maracas were also used in the latter half of the piece.) Indeed, this instrumental and vocal arrangement is the key to the stunningly original musical experience of “Music for 18 Musicians,” which, once heard, is unforgettable.

For Steve Reich, who began his career in the 1960s as an experimental musician, “Music for 18 Musicians” was a milestone of sorts, one arrived at by pursuing his musical interests and honing his approach together with his friends and creative partners. Of course, Reich had been creating masterpieces since early in his creative career. Prior to “Music for 18 Musicians” and another important work, “Drumming” (1970–1971), written a few years earlier, these include experimental works on tape such as “It’s Gonna Rain” and “Come Out,” as well as numerous highly acclaimed pieces such as “Piano Phase,” “Four Organs,” and “Six Pianos.” Of course, the “Music for 18 Musicians” performed on this day is a collection of sustained pulses and rhythmic energy found in many of his early works, and its musical worldview is common to all of them. However, as Reich has said himself, “Music for 18 Musicians” was his first attempt at writing music for a large orchestra of 18 (or more) musicians, as well as his first foray into more complex harmonic structures and musical compositions. In particular, the composer’s characteristic technique of phasing, or gradual change of tempo across two different time frames, gets its finest expression in this work, and Reich himself has recognized that “Music for 18 Musicians” was also a turning point for him as a composer, one that came to form the foundation for his later works.

Reich was originally an avid student of percussion instruments, and between 1970 and 1971 composed “Drumming” (which premiered at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in December 1971), a work for percussion instruments and voices that imitate their sound. Over the next few years, Reich presented “Six Pianos” and “Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ” (1973). Both works were a prelude of sorts to “Music for 18 Musicians” in that they experimented with the simultaneous progression of different rhythmic processes.

After “Drumming,” “Six Pianos,” and “Music for Mallets, Voices and Organ,” Reich eventually began sketching “Music for 18 Musicians” in 1974. He employed a variety of percussion instruments that could play the scales he excelled at and that he perhaps was the fondest of in terms of sound, including the marimba, xylophone, and vibraphone, and four pianos were brought in as the base instruments that would form the rhythmic foundation of the piece. To that foundation he added strings (violin and cello), woodwinds (clarinet and bass clarinet), and (female) vocals. A dizzying “polyphonic universe” of unique musical tones, incomparably more complex than anything that had come before, was finally born.

Several other aspects also characterize “Music for 18 Musicians.” First, this twentieth-century masterpiece, with its countermelodic and polyphonic structure, echoes the music of the Middle Ages, including Gregorian chant, which Reich admires. One may also sense in it the sublimity of religious music, one of the composer’s major sources of influence. However, in my opinion, Reich’s main concern is not so much with achieving the sublimity or exaltation of religious music, but rather pivots toward the “non-centeredness” of medieval music and the nature of the musical ensemble itself.

The performance of “18 Musicians” ended with a gentle fade-out, followed by a silence that enveloped the audience. Then, thunderous applause. On the stage, Colin Currie, who had led the performance, repeatedly pointed to Reich’s score as if to say, “Reserve the biggest applause for the composer, who couldn’t be here with us today!”

And I remembered what Reich had told me about this work when we had invited musicians led by him to rehearse “Music for 18 Musicians.”

“Keizo, ‘Music for 18 Musicians’ doesn’t have a conductor,” he said. “You know, the way this piece was born was similar to a band composing a new song. I’m not a big fan of hierarchical music played under the direction of a conductor. I prefer an autonomous form of performance (like that of jazz or rock) that’s made possible only when each musician plays while paying attention to each other and listening carefully without missing a beat of what the others are doing. That’s right—music has to be democratic.”

With a smile, Reich recalled having been visited by Brian Eno at his London concert in 1974 and by David Bowie at his Berlin show in 1976. The secret of the popularity of his music may lie in the idea of poetic justice, rooted in the democratic spirit that underpins his works, overcoming all sorts of barriers while moving freely in and out of the world.


Colin Currie Group
Steve Reich "Music for 18 Musicians"

Tokyo Opera City Concert Hall


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前田圭蔵 Keizo Maeda

Graduated Tama Art University. After working in the Curatorial Department of Setagaya Art Museum, he worked on the planning and production of music and performing arts as well as record label management at Conversation & Company Co., Ltd. Since 2001, he has been involved in the management of the website and magazine realtokyo. At the World Expo held in Aichi Prefecture in 2005, he was in charge of numerous international projects. Associate Director of “Festival/Tokyo” 2011, Producer of “Aichi Triennale” 2013 Performing Arts Section, Director of Main Arena of “Roppongi Art Night” 2014, “International Art Festival Aichi 2022” Performing Arts Section Advisor. Since 2012, he has been involved in the planning and production of domestic and international performing arts as a staff member of the Tokyo Metropolitan Foundation for History and Culture, Tokyo Metropolitan Theater.

(photo: Ryuji Miyamoto)