The GVSU recording of Music for 18 dropped a few weeks ago. Since then there's been renewed interest in the ensemble, especially their 5 AM performance of this hourlong Steve Reich masterwork at the Bang On A Can Marathon earlier this year. A lot of people are surprised to learn that the Grand Valley State kids played for an audience of some 400 people -- "for reasons that no one could quite understand" to quote Alex Ross.
Well, speaking as one of The 400, it honestly did not occur to me that there was anything unusual about the size of the audience, even given the, ah, nontraditional timeslot. Of course, I'm the guy who thought it would be fun to liveblog the entire 27-hour marathon, so you may not want to put too much stock in my idea of what "usual" is. But I have received some email inquiries by people who are genuinely curious about what motivated those who turned out. (Perhaps some are thinking of launching their own 5 AM music series?)
It's tempting to be glib and say 'What part of 'The City That Never Sleeps' don't you understand?" On any given Saturday night in NYC, there are lots of people still out getting their fun on at 5 AM. (Obviously, it's not just NYC -- back in my callow youth, when we would hit Montreal's afterhours dance clubs, by 5 AM the party was just getting started.) When you've got close to a thousand people who came down to the Winter Garden to check out the free shows, including sets by The Books, Juana Molina, and a live version of Brian Eno's Music for Airports, it didn't seem that surprising that many of those listeners would choose to stick around for the "afterparty" (or drift in after a night on the town).
The 5 AM set was planned to coincide with the rising sun -- the opening Pulses began cloaked in darkness, but by the work's end the Winter Garden's glass-enclosed atrium was flooded with daylight. (You can see the progression in the photos I took.) This experience now seems inextricable from the piece's story arc -- the maracas in Section VI will hereafter always evoke dawn for me.
Music for 18 Musicians is not an easy piece, and Grand Valley State University is not exactly a magnet school for young virtuosi. The students there mostly have their sights set on teaching gigs, not whirlwind international careers. But that actually makes the piece a better fit for them, in a couple of important ways.
First, given a certain basic level of competence, its difficulties are the same for everyone. It's no easier for a Juilliard wunderkind to learn to play Music for 18 Musicians than it is for anyone else. In fact, because the music allows so little room for individual showmanship, it may even be harder for the young hotshot to put aside his ego and submit to the demands of the music. (Kyle Gann talks about this equalizing effect in his post on coaching minimalist and postminimalist rep.)
Second, like all of Reich's music, Music for 18 Musicians is impossible to perform unless everyone involved has a highly developed sense of rhythmic authority. You need to be strong enough in your own sense of time that you can play your part securely and accurately, but you also have to be hyper-attuned to where everyone else is feeling the time, and sensitive enough to adjust your own placement to match what is happening around you. Without a conductor, a drummer, or a click track to impose the beat, it's almost inevitable that you will end up with an 18-way tug-of-war. Learning to play the piece is largely about everyone learning how to pull in the same direction. For these young musicians, being forced to take personal responsibility for the time in large group context... and then being forced to keep up that intensity of concentration for an hour or more -- this is the best, more important and relevant lesson you could possibly teach the next generation of music educators.
I've often found it a bit curious that for a composer who is both hugely influenced by jazz (especially Kenny Clarke's sense of forward motion and Coltrane's single-minded motivic transformations) and is himself hugely influential far beyond his own musical turf (to cite but the latest of countless examples, Radiohead's In Rainbows has at least two tracks that are explicitly built around Reichian techniques) -- Steve Reich's influence on jazz musicians has been practically nonexistent. There are exceptions, of course -- Pat Metheny, John Hollenbeck, Joe Phillips, and, uh, yrs trly -- but an awful lot of jazz musicians, from arch-traditionalists to ostensible avant-gardists, find Reich's music anathema. My own mentor, Bob Brookmeyer, drips contempt for all things minimalist. (He once had to be escorted out of a performance of a Philip Glass opera.)
A few weeks ago, I gave a workshop on Reich's music for some jazz majors out at Queens College. I started by having the class attempt to read through Clapping Music, which I hoped would (A) be fun, and (B) give everyone a first-hand taste of some of the difficulties involved in performing Reich's music. It's fair to say there was a wide range of reactions to this, from "enthusiastic curiosity" to "are you fucking kidding me with this shit?". The skepticism intensified considerably when I played them the first few minutes of Come Out. I was definitely expecting some pushback on that one, but I'd also hoped that the kids would at least be somewhat impressed by Piano Phase, especially with the help of these nifty video aids:
(Unfortunately, at the time the Aidu clip wouldn't load.)
Anyway, at this point the battle lines were clearly drawn, but we had a productive side discussion about the value of the avant-garde generally, and the merits of studying music you can't stand. I'm glad the people who were not into this music spoke up -- it's always much more fun when people say their piece instead of just gritting their teeth in silence. And I think even the skeptics found a little relief when we moved on to the comparatively lush Music for Mallet Instruments, Organ and Voices and the openly jazz-inflected New York Counterpoint. But the experience made me wonder how much grief GVSU New Music Ensemble director Bill Ryan got from his students when they learned they would be devoting the year to learning a piece that doesn't offer many of the obvious rewards most players expect when they perform music. It also got me wondering how and why the virtues of Reich's music -- propulsion, clarity, patience, audible development, complexity via the manipulation of simple materials, the gradual construction of an effective large-scale musical narrative -- do not seem to resonate with very many of my fellow jazz musicians.