The legacy of Steve Reich – Minimalism and Music for 18 Machines


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Today minimalism is a given but when Steve Reich did the same in the 60’s and 70’s things were quite different, pioneering the use of tape loops and phase patterns Steve, alongside Philip Glass and Terry Riley, have had a massive influence on today’s music scene. Now in 2016 it is also 40 years since Steve’s classic piece Music for 18 Musicians made its debut in 1976 and to celebrate this a team in Dublin has re-created and re-imagined this famous set up and it will be showcased at The Button Factory starting September 15th.

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In 1974, Reich began writing Music for 18 Musicians. This piece involved many new ideas, although it also hearkened back to earlier pieces. It is based on a cycle of eleven chords introduced at the beginning (called “Pulses”), followed by a small section of music based on each chord (“Sections I-XI”), and finally a return to the original cycle (“Pulses”). This was Reich’s first attempt at writing for larger ensembles. The increased number of performers resulted in more scope for psychoacoustic effects, which fascinated Reich, and he noted that he would like to “explore this idea further”. Reich remarked that this one work contained more harmonic movement in the first five minutes than any other work he had written. Steve Reich and Musicians made the premier recording of this work on ECM Records.

Below is an interview with Steve Reich in which the composer talks about his music and the inspiration behind his work Music for 18 Musicians. The video also includes behind-the-scenes footage of the London Sinfonietta and Synergy Vocals in rehearsal for a performance of Music for 18 Musicians in 2009.

Going back to the present we now have Note Productions and Synth Eastwood re-creating this piece under the name Music for 18 Machines. Reich’s work is a blueprint of the minimalist movement ¬ an exploration of pattern and process which morphs into a psychoacoustic experiment that posits the question ‘what happens when a group of musicians are asked to perform like machines?’

Music for 18 Machines reverses this process somewhat and seeks to coax an expressive and emotive performance from 18 electronic instruments triggered by a single sequencer.

The project was conceived by Simon Cullen (Synth Eastwood) and he is joined for the performance by Neil O’ Connor (Somadrone) as they revoice the piece for 18 synthesisers. They are also joined by visual artist Anthony Murphy (Shadowlab) who has created a new illustrative interpretation of the processes and patterns embedded in the work.

However, Music for 18 Musicians is just one out of many in Steve’s catalog of iconic pieces that has been re-created over the years. Another piece that has been frequently re-visited is Pendulum Music. Below is a picture of Sweden’s leading electronic music export Covenant doing a unique performance of Steve’s work at Malmö Konsthall (Modern art center) about a year ago.

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Reich came up with the concept while working at the University of Colorado. He was swinging a live microphone in the style of the cowboy’s lasso, and noting the produced feedback, he composed for an “orchestra” of microphones.

Three or more microphones are suspended above the speakers by means of a cable and stand. The microphones are pulled back, switched on, and released over the speaker, and gravity causes them to swing back and forth as pendulums. As the microphone nears the speaker, a feedback tone is created. Different lengths of cable will swing at different speeds, creating an overlapping series of feedback squeals. The music created is thus the result of the process of the swinging microphones.

“The piece is ended sometime shortly after all mikes have come to rest and are feeding back a continuous tone by performers pulling the power cords of the amplifiers”. “If it’s done right, it’s kind of funny”. Unfortunately we have not found any live footage of Covenant’s performance but we have included an alternative version below:

And if you after this cannot get enough of Steve’s music then we can recommend “Third Coast Percussion: The Music Of Steve Reich”, is a quite new free iOS app that lets you create music like the celebrated American minimalist composer. Developed by the Third Coast Percussion Ensemble of Chicago as an interactive learning tool and composition platform, it gives you the ability to play with three different modules that each relate to a distinct Reich idea. These modes include Phasing (for loops), Additive (for polyrhythms) and Canons (for overlaid melodies). You can even import your own sounds for use in each. You can download a copy via the App Store.

For more information:

Come celebrate this landmark minimalist piece in this unorthodox format on the 15th of September 2016 at the Button Factory in Temple Bar.

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