Steve REICH (b. 1936)
Music for 18 Musicians [59.17]
Ensemble Signal/Brad Lubman
rec. EMPAC Concert Hall, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New York, no date given
HARMONIA MUNDI HMU907608 [59:17]

Music for 18 Musicians was a breakthrough work for Steve 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 fourteen parts, and is based around eleven chords, each of which develops small melodic phrases, before cycling back to a restatement of the original section. Lasting around an hour — Reich’s 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 quality and its micro-melodies are memorable; it’s the kind of music you might want to hum or whistle, if you are so inclined.

There have been a number of recordings of this work since Reich’s own 1978 release, but not as many as one might expect for what is one of the key works of minimalism. It’s true that it’s a long work, not easy to perform, but that shouldn’t stop groups from recording it. After all, we see hundreds of recordings of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and that’s not an easy work to perform either.

The reason this work isn’t recorded a lot is because the original recording – Reich’s 1978 recording on ECM – is so good. It’s hard to find fault with it, other than for its very slightly limited sound quality. The performance is tight and well-paced, perfectly balanced, the type of recording that can only be made by a composer with an ensemble that has been performing his works for years. Of the half-dozen versions currently available — I own them all — none really unseats the original.

Back in 2008, I reviewed a recording of this work by the Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble; a student ensemble. They did an admirable job and their recording remains near the top of the (admittedly small) pile of recordings of this piece. Since then, there has not been another recording of Music for 18 Musicians.

This new disc by the Ensemble Signal comes nearly forty years — and not fifty, as the liner-notes claim — after the work’s premiere. Director Brad Lubman has worked with Steve Reich for some two decades and knows this music inside out. This recording is precise and balanced, energetic, and is very well recorded. The soundscape is a bit different from Reich’s 1978 recording. It’s a lot more open, with, for example, at around the 22-minute mark, marimbas on the sides and voices in the centre, where Reich’s recording has the opposite positioning. As such, listening on headphones, this new recording feels a bit more immersive. I’ve listed the overall time point, rather than the section number, since Reich’s 1978 recording is a single track, at least on CD.

The pulsing bass clarinets at around 25 minutes, for example, are centrally positioned, whereas they’re more to the sides on Reich’s original. If anything, this new recording has a lighter touch, and is more incisive in phrasing; it has a bit more oomph to it. Listening around the 27-minute mark – Section V in the new recording – where things get quieter, I find that Reich has a better sound, with more contrast.

The voices are also much more prominent on the Ensemble Signal recording. I’m not sure whether that is a good thing or not. On Reich’s version, the voices sound like an instrument; on this recording, they sound like voices. For example, around the 38 minute mark, I find the voices are too loud. While the new recording is sonically an improvement overall, Reich’s balance works better.

This said, I can’t criticize Ensemble Signal’s performance in any way. Unlike more standard classical music, it’s hard to pinpoint the elements of minimalist works that separate different recordings other than tempo and, in some cases, instrumentation. It’s clear that this group is excellent with fine musicians who understand this music.

So what’s a listener to do? If you own the 1978 edition, then you probably need not look any further. I can’t see any suggestion that this recording was ever re-mastered, so any CD version should be the same as the first CD release in 2000. If you aren’t familiar with the work, flip a coin; go for the classic, or go for the new one, you won’t be disappointed either way — assuming you like the music.

If, like me, you’re obsessed with this piece, and have found it to be one of the greatest works of 20th century music, then you will certainly want to hear how Ensemble Signal plays it. You won’t be disappointed.

Kirk McElhearn

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