Bodily Rhythms of Reich
by Zach English
classical music has never made much of a dent in the publics
consciousness outside of art schools and conservatories because
its power lies less in melody than in ideas and textures. Whereas
Beethoven or Mozart would build their pieces to crescendos of shameless
virtuosic majesty, the 20th century has seen composers such as Glass,
Satie and Steve Reich stretch the most basic musical elements, such
as a three-note piano fill or the swishing of a maraca, until they
feel as natural as a heartbeat. Like an impressionist painting,
Reichs music can evoke anything with subtlety. During Fridays
performance of Music for 18 Musicians, one had the sensation
of running or flying before the airplane footage even appeared on
In Music for 18 Musicians, everything, from the marimbas
and vibes to the catatonic murmurings of the four vocalists, is
performed live. The piece is so minimalist, however, that its
easy to close your eyes and conceive it as a mechanized precursor
to the synth-trance of Kraftwerk and Moby.
You can hear the influence of this stuff just about anywhere rockers
brandish their Eurocentric credentials: John Cales chilly
strings on The Velvet Underground & Nico, the washes of feedback
on Sonic Youths epic The Diamond Sea, The Falls
Mark E. Smith shouting to his bandmates, Dont improvise,
for Gods sake, as if the song would fall apart if anyone
were to break it open.
in black and gray, staring fixedly at each other as if communicating
tacit messages that the music alone couldnt carry, the 18
conservatory students seemed less to be playing notes on a page
than giving our respiratory and sexual bodily rhythms a new language.
According to the shows program, each performer is meant to
play his part for only the duration of a breath. The key changes
were sudden in their interruption of the drone, and when the single
maraca came in it felt like tectonic plates had just shifted under
the auditorium. It was disarming to hear silence after the last
note had drifted away, as if Id expected the music to have
no beginning or end.
There is a reason not many people put ideological triumphs like
this on their stereos for pleasure. In a concert hall, the virtual
melodies (as the program described the ghostly notes that
seemed to exist without being played) surround ones head and
reverberate off the walls. On small speakers, the instruments would
probably melt together and that essential effect would be lost.
importantly, contemporary classical music is often more fun to think
about than to hear. The concepts Reich devised about breathing techniques,
drones and bodily rhythms are disappointingly static when spread
out over an hour-and-a half. Compare it with the minimalist
approach of early James Brown and youll be convinced that
real musical genius has little to do with eggheads reworking 12th
century scales in their armchairs.