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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 8 A Harmonious Avant-Garde?
Richard Taruskin

Reich's other large work of the 1970s, Music for 18 Musicians (composed between 1974 and 1976), has acquired emblematic status. Far less immediately evocative than Drumming of exotic musics, it represents a synthesis of all the techniques Reich had developed over the preceding decade; and in its use of electronically amplified solo strings, winds, and voices in counterpoint with the ever-present Reichian percussion and keyboards it proposed an alternative, increasingly normative orchestral sound for the late twentieth century. Perhaps the most influential fully notated composition of the decade, it is often described as the first postmodernist masterwork. Although calling it that may be yet another contradiction in terms, the phrase does call attention to the important role it played in renovating the terms on which music was composed and evaluated.

Basically an expansive synthesis of the harmonic structure of Four Organs with the rhythmic design of Drumming, Reich's Music for 18 Musicians unfolds a kaleidoscope of evolving and interacting melodic patterns, all controlled by a common measure of twelve quick-moving subtactile pulses, over a majestically slow-moving chord progression that pulses through the ensemble at the outset at a rate of fifteen to thirty seconds per chord, and is then repeated at the rate of four to six minutes per chord, with the string instruments playing long sustained tones. Each of these long spans provides the background for a “small piece,” as Reich calls his closed rhythmic constructions, mostly cast in simple, easily perceived ABA forms. The composition in its totality is a chain of eleven of these small pieces, which, because it recapitulates a previously heard harmonic progression, achieves a preordained closure of its own, reinforced by a final, relatively rapid cruise through the eleven chords at the end.

The most significant resemblance between Music for 18 Musicians and Drumming is in the manner of its performance. It, too, embodies a highly ritualized set of prescribed actions, in which players (including the composer, when the piece is performed—as it almost always is—by his own ensemble) move from place to place on the stage, their physical movements and resulting sound-output regulated not by a conductor but by the vibraphone player, whose prescribed actions signal the end of each “small piece” and cue the next with a special recurrent tune reserved for the instrument's distinctive timbre. The vibraphone thus impersonally embodies the role of the master drummer in an African ensemble, the “invisible conductor” to which all the players, the composer included, impersonally submit, sacrificing their individual freedom not to a specially empowered individual who alone is free, but to a collective and transcendent ideal of ecstasy-producing accuracy.

The whole hour-long piece, although it has a meticulously notated score and parts, can be followed from the harmonic skeleton given in Ex. 8-7, which shows the eleven-chord progression whose triple cursus provides the composition with its structure. While entirely diatonic, requiring not a single accidental, it is obviously no functional progression. Roots are often equivocal (as is especially obvious in the first chord); the spacing, with wide gaps between the bass dyad and the rest, is eccentric; there is no strong cadence or even any pure consonant triad. Most of the harmonies are of the kind jazz musicians call “added-note chords.” One cannot even confidently assign the progression to the A-major or the F♯-minor reading of the key signature. The most one can say, perhaps, is that by choosing a strictly diatonic but weakly articulated pitch field and (relatively) consonant harmonies the composer has made the pitch domain relatively unobtrusive, the better to focus listeners’ attention on the rhythmic processes. The change of harmony every five minutes or so amounts to a cleansing of the palate rather than a dramatic event.

A Postmodernist Masterwork?

ex. 8-7 Steve Reich, Music for 18 Musicians, “cycle of chords”

The “opening chorale,” or rapid harmonic traversal, unfolds through “hairpin” (crescendo-decrescendo) dynamics corresponding to the length of a wind-player's breath. The bass and treble instruments come separately to the fore, thus further attenuating any sense of harmonic function or progression. During the slow-motion progression that makes up the body of the work, most of the interacting rhythmic/melodic cells are based on the pattern already familiar from Clapping Music. These cells occasionally introduce pitches foreign to the sustained harmony, and even the bass occasionally uses foreign and even chromatic pitches as embellishments (yet further lessening its structural role). All of this may be observed in the first “small piece,” based on the first chord, as sampled in Ex. 8-8. Despite these liberties, or even because of them, there is always a very firm distinction between what is structural (i.e., related to the basic progression) and what is decorative. It is the stringently limited and static nature of the structural material that maintains the tie between this very elaborate and colorful composition and the reductive minimalist ideal. Gone, however, is the ascetic atmosphere of early minimalism. Compared with the monochromatic schemes of Reich's previous music, the variegated timbres of Music for 18 Musicians are extravagant, even voluptuous.

Reich acknowledged the change in a 1977 interview with Michael Nyman. The all-important process, he now allowed, was more his business than his audience's:

I'm not as concerned that one hears how the music is made as I was in the past. If some people hear exactly what's going on, good for them, and if other people don't but they still like the piece, then that's OK too…. There was a didactic quality to the early pieces, and looking back I'd say that, when you discover a new idea, it's very important to present that idea in a very forceful and clear and pared-down way…. But once you've done that, what do you do? What I was really concerned with in Music for 18 Musicians was making beautiful music above everything else.41

These are no longer the words of an avant-gardist, but those of an artist who feels his battle has been won. That may account for the sense of celebration that fills Music for 18 Musicians. Over its course distinctive features of Reich's previous work pass in review: the glockenspiels from Drumming, the maracas from Four Organs, the pentatonic patterns from the early phase pieces. By the time the ninth “small piece” is reached, the texture—combining the expanding “rhythmic construction” idea of Drumming with the progressive canons of Clapping Music—has become very laden and intricate, but also euphoric.

A Postmodernist Masterwork?A Postmodernist Masterwork?

ex. 8-8 Steve Reich, Music for 18 Musicians, mm. 99–105

Even within the minimalist purview, it now appeared, it was possible to achieve “maximum complexity under maximum control,” and beginning with Music for 18 Musicians Reich began to command the full respect of some influential mainstream or academic critics. But at the same time Reich's music broadened its appeal to what became known as the “crossover” audience. Reich's ensemble gave the premiere of Music for 18 Musicians at New York's Town Hall, a classical venue, in April 1976. Two years later, his recording of the piece for ECM, a small German label that specialized in avant-garde jazz, sold 100,000 copies—obviously not just to the avant-garde audience—and the ensemble performed the piece before a sell-out audience at the Bottom Line, one of New York's most famous rock clubs. Add another two years and Steve Reich and Musicians would be filling Carnegie Hall.

Reich began to receive commissions from major orchestras (New York Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony), which led him for a time to modify his style considerably. That was “rather fortunate,” said Brian Eno, “because that meant I could carry on with it,”42 meaning the earlier, more ascetic and rigorous minimalist manner that now went over quite decisively into art-rock. There was no longer any point even in attempting to draw the line, formerly so sharp and well patrolled, between the high and low genres of music, at least where the impact of minimalism was concerned; nor was there any way of telling where the movement's impact had been greater. Minimalism turned out to be for music a great leveler, for which reason traditional modernists regarded it as the direst of threats. And that made it the most easily cited, if not necessarily the most representative or significant, embodiment of “postmodernism.”


(41) Steve Reich, interviewed by Michael Nyman, Studio International, November/December 1976; quoted in Schwarz, Minimalists, p. 80.

(42) Quoted in Tamm, Brian Eno, p. 24.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 8 A Harmonious Avant-Garde?." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 16 Oct. 2018. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-008009.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 8 A Harmonious Avant-Garde?. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 16 Oct. 2018, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-008009.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 8 A Harmonious Avant-Garde?." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 16 Oct. 2018, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-008009.xml