Atoms of Escape, Drones of Realisation – Steve Reich

’18 Musicians’ and facets of the music of Steve Reich

I realised a new version of the album Music for 18 Musicians had been released on vinyl in December! A live recording from Tokyo in 2008 and despite one or two minor sonic hiccups, it is a fabulous release, prompting intensive re-listenings and this piece of writing, which has been gestating in thought for many years.

It feels like to listen is to become lost, as while there are motifs, and threads and melodic hooks, in fact it is all motifs, threads and melodic hooks, while also being all of its rhythms, undulations, sweeps and phases.

Its easy to say after such a statement that all music is like this, composed of itself, its parts and its sonic elements, that they never stop being themselves and yet in one way they do. As we begin to know a song, or a piece of music, maybe love it, or like it, we begin to hear it more in its totality and live with it, sing it, hum it, have it in our heads. With something like ’18 Musicians’ this is far more challenging to conceive and why the statement above is more telling than it seems.

In creating, writing, recording, performing this piece, Steve Reich gave us many gifts, not least of which among this towering, precise sprawl of interlocking wonder is the realisation of an ‘atomic’ in the sound. That the overarching, or spanning and reaching of the music is also there, completely molecular, the recurrence of pin pricks of light and sound, come together in formation to become something else whose meaning and feeling and impact are emergent, but carry on being something else also. Something somehow demonstrative that regardless of all the ways you will perceive and take in the forms of the music, the journeys you will go on and the senses you will have or learn to have around its shape and structure, that there will continue to be more again around the corner.

In one simple way it is refrains, but it is also revealing that the refrains can be almost uniquely ’emergent’, that is confluent from different locations and sounds, and this most especially when we are hearing it in a mode of heightened awarenss or deep listening That its relationships with itself take on other dimensions, connections and occurrences form bridges in our perception, take on new forms which feelings in discovery, in the emergence of previously indistinguishable depth.

A great version of Steve Reich’s seminal, stratospheric work, especially for seeing the musicians and their interactions ongoing

In fact it seems that what may be ultimately most potent about Reich (and I assume other composers of the ilk although I would not want to say that a singular thing in this sense could apply to others) and this music, is precisely the coming together of the sounds in different possibilities of listening and hearing. To become changes that come from hearing individual elements, refrains, patterns, but that then morph out, leaving you in their wake, or vapour tail as a transformed activation of listening and as such, also becoming.

By also existing so much inside the pulse as this piece does (its opening and closing sections are actually called ‘Pulses’) it feels like the result of an extraordinary excursion, into gaps. Not gaps of silence as such, but each pulsation a fast moving space ship of repetition that become like mandelbrot fractals of a sound in essence, larger formed repetitions (already) of the vibration which a sound is composed of. Interacting at this pristine level with other such forms around them, co-existing and co-enacting as a force of intent for this piece to exist. It is also evident in this phase that it performs the sublime feat of both sustaining itself while also being palpably transient and in its recursiveness, as absent as it is present.

We are in this sense, experiencing something of presence and absence simultaneously in the form of something entirely present (the piece itself) but which takes us simultaneously the possibilities of absence in presence as a force of the unknown, what is left by the gaps? what is away in this sense? What is created by a recursive oscillation that is singular compared to a sustained drone?

They have always felt like relatives and yet also in some way archetypes and differences from each other, the pulse and the drone, the sustained which is made up of constancy (in the constancy of a vibration) and the pullulation of repeated instances. In fact, the sense of each being a different way of experiencing a form of totality is probably what emerges here. That the drone challenges our sense of change, while itself being change while the pulse challenges our sense of presence, while being also (and simultaneously) its absence.

There is an undeniably skeletal mode at work, partly perhaps why the excellent video for the Bonobo song Cirrus sometimes strikes me as a visual extenuation of the work of Reich and others. Although important to realise that Reich’s music (in the way that music can) is also always transforming out of this mechanistic. Something like ’18 Musicians’, which has this ongoing intricacy and inherent, vital structurality is always going to be battling the tendency for its molecularity to be heard as somehow lacking breath and feeling in the strictness of its meter. And yet with Reich’s melodic sense, the tonal apeture in confluence with its rhythmicality (itself shifting and modulating, subject to the emergent waves and becomings of the wider tides of sound which ooze through with drama and intensity in augmenting occurence both) becomes a strident and reflective statement of the integral of challenging life as a statement of sonic intent, and its dreamed correlate.


This live version from 2011, less speedy, has a powerful depth in its reverberation in space which generates a sense of additional returns and sonic impact

Its at around 16 minutes of this lovely live video version that I begin to hear (for the first time) a high, serene, emergent drone that pulses and gently spins like a tibetan singing bowl (its in the note/chord of E major). It must be listened to by tuning out the polished and brilliant individual sounds and listening for something which comes through the background, the tail of all of the sounds together forms it. In some ways, it feels like the culmination (on this occasion) of the listening to this piece and writing.


One of the things that is fascinating about listening to these live performances, is that they are rarely perfectly played, or in their ‘nowness’ convey different moments of dissonance in the full extent and live aspect of the refrains. There are times, when in the complexity of what is being heard we are directed towards the obfuscated impact of an individual refrain without fully hearing it, but here, we often catch full bodied cells and lines which are surprising, inject sudden fitness of thought and understanding through a deft reveal, an attitude or position in relation which changes the aspect of understanding of the piece, of experiencing it.

It strikes also that one of the things I recall from reading the book many years ago ‘Conversations with Xenakis‘ was his thinking that through his stochastic approaches to sound, he could arrive at forms of sonic distribution which were more akin to clusters and clouds of sound. However, it strikes me now that on a practical level, something like ’18 Musicians’ has to also be understood as being cloud-like in form. It is a constantly shifting miasmic world of reveals, of infinitesimal parts, always in motion, revealing currents and layers. It remains one of the most extraordinary achievements we have in music – that in its very simple and complex basic-ness and its connection with the basic-ness of sound as an entity, brought together with vivacious hunger with other sounds, shatters the normality of what a collection of sounds can be, giving the depth of space to understand that it (they) are also an intent, a glimpse of a world of their own feelings, an autonomy of the empirical outside ourselves, but that we too can realise.


Steve Reich - Steve Reich At UC Berkeley University Museum 11.7 ...
Album cover for Reich’s live work at UC Berkley in 1970

I also notice how it has a curious double relation with a double aspect of life. At around 33:16 of this recording (above) when the female voices are once again pulsing quickly, but also on a long fade in and out, it is apparent how like our experiences of life this is, with things that come and go, sometimes on these long slow intensifications or arrivals that build and then fade in the same slow way, or sometimes like a pulsating ongoing presence, whose change and transformation are barely noticed. And yet it also bears a striking similarity to something as intrinsic and strange as DNA, a helical formation of different codes whose vast form in cellular – makes possible iterations of being in reality. It does seem strange in this sense that part of the language of ‘minimalism’ (a term not generally owned by the composers and musicians of whom it is placed as a label) refers to the small refrains often used in different placements and combinations, themselves unchanged in simple form, but vastly changing in combination and effect – as being ‘cells’. Although the most apt expression of such a specificity of approach is probably ‘In C’ by Terry Riley.


While I have listened to Reich over the years, I have become increasingly aware of one aspect or recurrence of his technique, which becomes more vital as one considers the impact and power of these undulating, pulsations of sound that so populate his work and style. This is the presence utilised of longer, held notes and chords; refrains which encapsulate a feeling or possibility from the faster pop of the rhythms going on around it. It was something I felt Reich specifically explored in pieces like ‘Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ’ from 1974 (above) and perhaps most explosively in the piece which began as ‘Octet’ in 1979 But which Reich later re-scored in 1983 as a beefed up turbo version which took on the moniker ‘Eight Lines‘.

It is in these held notes, and specifically Reich’s melodic conjuring (counterpointing that contrasts in duration) that these refrains are again, so simple, but effective and beautifully voiced and chorded – that I have been aware of very effective and powerful occurence. There is probably nowhere that this first more noticeably surfaces and is active, than in ‘Section VII’ Of ’18 Musicians’ (below). The cello and voices slowly assume and move through a form of this counterpart, long and held, running long lines of determination with the pulsified skitter. It is as if a new possibility emerges, even amid this verdant field of already new possibility.

Generally a four note refrain (although returning to the same note), it initially modulates in different and supporting ways, interacting with and supporting other refrains in the movement, before finding a four note held form. It is as if knowing that it has something there in its form to be intensified, it is given a bass dimension (soon joined by low cello or bowed double bass) and holding for the majority of the section. While in ‘Eight Lines’, we hear this mode given a more fulsome exploration, now it is variations on a held line that oscillates two broad positions and refrains the two. Again supported in arrangement, the arrival of bass, the intra-movement of changed voicing. It is almost as if in discovering that alongside the skitterzoic of these pulses a different dimension of harmonic relation is required, something Reich undertook to also explore. Taking off from ‘Section VII’ and into the contextualising of this voice-form, as a dramatic sustain, as a setting point. For me it is when the work most fully takes form or takes off. When in the strange, simple beauty of these held-motif refrains, long and gestatory, we are given something as basic as it is also somehow alien. The sense of something that is maintained and yet scything in its sonic form. Gelling and providing meaning in broad terms to the motion all around. Unfailingly powerful and resonant. To hear it strikingly in context, ‘Eight Lines’ captures these moments both at 3:50min and at the 11:00min (where it is a faster refrain between two chorded positions).


Part of the 2008 live Tokyo performance – (glitchy video)

And yet what prompted this recent return to Reich and the worlds of ’18 Musicians’, was encountering this version of the reprise ‘Pulses’ after Reich has nodded to the mode of serialism with his structure (Serialism being the dominant acceptable form of classical music study at the time) with his opening pulses, which have contained in kernal form – the microcosmic outline of how he will traverse the twelve tones (unveiling which occurs over the course of the next 60 or so minutes) Pulse caps off via return.


When you reach the end, when silence is allowed to return, when the piece fades to apparent nothingness once more, it is like you have been to a different planet, which is also this one, or you have had an alien visitation. Something full of intricacy, beauty and meaning, but also an oddly graspable kind of nobility, of precision and of mystery, of the absolute straightforward (the sound is all there before you and yet you know mostly you are not hearing it to its full extent) and yet the absolutely nuanced, nuanced to the point of understanding that nuance itself is ongoing realisation and that realisation is of the alienation of love, returning anew to fill every pore with fascination and the beyond. Perhaps it should best be left to this section of Hinton’s translation of the Dao De Ching as it seems to speak so resonantly of the same thing (from three thousand years ago, and further in inference).


Ancient masters of Way
all subtle mystery and dark-enigma vision:
they were deep beyond knowing,
so deep beyond knowing
we can only describe their appearance:
perfectly cautious, as if crossing winter streams,
and perfectly watchful, as if neighbors threatened;
perfectly reserved, as if guests,
perfectly expansive, as if ice melting away,
and perfectly simple, as if uncarved wood;
perfectly empty, as if open valleys,
and perfectly shadowy, as if murky water.
Who’s murky enough to settle slowly into pure clarity,
and who still enough to awaken slowly into life?
If you nurture this Way, you never crave fullness.
Never crave fullness
and you’ll wear away into completion.

superb snapshot of the layered cellular refrains of Eight Lines