Reviewing popular music is easy, especially when the people who write the music also perform it. Classical music, on the other hand, is more about interpretation, since the repertoire in question has already been thoroughly vetted. So it can be somewhat problematic when reviewing a piece that’s relatively new and doesn’t have very many recordings.
The only recording of Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians I’ve so far heard is the 1998 performance by Reich’s own ensemble on Nonesuch. The piece itself has been recorded only five times, twice by Reich. The Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble is the latest ensemble to give this landmark piece a shot.
The story of the Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble is something a Cinderella tale. The ensemble’s director, Bill Ryan, programmed a performance of Music for 18 Musicians to commemorate Reich’s 70th birthday. Sensing the group of college musicians (and one volunteer) could successfully pull it off, he brought five of the group’s members to New York City, where the "Reich @ 70" festival was under way.
Subsequently inspired by the trip, the ensemble’s performance in November 2006 was impressive enough to garner an invitation to the Bang on a Can marathon in June 2007. Ryan also sent a demo of the rehearsals to Innova Recordings, which recorded the group in January 2007.
The 4 a.m. performance at Bang on a Can caught the attention of critics, and after Innova released the album in October 2007, it was ranked as one of the year’s best classical CDs by a number of writers.
Music for 18 Musicians is a study in contradictions. Despite a seemingly rigid sense of time, the piece gives players a lot of latitude on how it progresses. The piece is based on a series of 11 chords, but the rhythmic development offers nearly endless possibilities on how those chords are perceived. It’s a work rich with texture, even with the barest amount of material. And while the mix of percussion, piano, woodwinds and voice produces a sublime timbre, its the details — the length of a breath, namely — that require much attention.
The Grand Valley players start off a bit punchier than Reich’s ensemble. The opening "Pulses" has a youthful enthusiasm bubbling under the surface of the chugging rhythms. It’s not as lock steady as Reich’s ensemble, and it gives the performance some charm.
But the ensemble quickly settles into the work, and the playing gets tighter as the piece progresses. That sense of youth, though, doesn’t get entirely lost. Rather, the players infuse a palpable personality behind the performance.
Part of the Cinderella story is the fact a number of the group’s musicians had never heard of Reich, nor the piece. But you can’t tell that from this performance. The Grand Valley musicians play as if the piece had always been part of their being.
I don’t know how the Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble stacks up against performances by Ensemble Modern or the Amadinda Percussion Group, but for a student ensemble to embrace and absorb this piece as these players have is remarkable nonetheless.