Reich @ 70 - A Closer Look: Music for 18 Musicians
“[I] said, ‘Let’s take a step backwards into Western tradition,’ ‘Let’s recover my birthright,’ and in Music for 18 I decided ‘Let’s start the whole piece with a cycle of harmony.’” —Robert Hurwitz
Photo: Score of Music for 18 Musicians
NEXT: Music of Conscience
“With pieces like Music for 18 Musicians and Drumming, Steve suddenly flung open a door to the possibilities of what a modern composer could be in our time.” —Robert Hurwitz

Reich in His Own Words

About creating Music for 18 Musicians, not using the phasing technique, and using harmony (3:06)


Although its steady pulse and rhythmic energy related to many of my earlier works, the instrumentation, harmony, and structure of Music for 18 Musicians are new.

There is more harmonic movement in the first five minutes of Music for 18 Musicians than in any other complete work of mine to date. Though the movement from chord to chord is often just a re-voicing, inversion, or relative minor or major of a previous chord, usually staying within the key signature of three sharps at all times, nevertheless, within these limits harmonic movement plays a more important role in this piece than in any other I have written.

The structure of Music for 18 Musicians is based on a cycle of 11 chords played at the very beginning of the piece and repeated at the end. All the instruments and voices play or sing pulsing notes within each chord. Instruments (like the strings) which do not have to breathe nevertheless follow the rise and fall of the breath by following the breath patterns of the bass clarinet. Each chord is held for the duration of two breaths, and the next chord is gradually introduced, and so on, until all 11 are played and the ensemble returns to the first chord. This first pulsing chord is then maintained by two pianos and two marimbas. While this pulsing chord is held for about five minutes, a small piece is constructed on it. When this piece is completed there is a sudden change to the second chord, and a second small piece or section is constructed. This means that each chord that might have taken 15 or 20 seconds to play in the opening section is then stretched out as the basic pulsing harmony for a five-minute piece very much as a single note in a cantus firmus, or chant melody of 12th-century organum by Perotin might be stretched out for several minutes as the harmonic center for a section of the organum. The opening 11-chord cycle of Music for 18 Musicians is a kind of pulsing cantus for the entire piece.

One of the basic means of change or development in many sections of this piece is to be found in the rhythmic relationship of harmony to melody. Specifically, a melodic pattern may be repeated over and over again, but by introducing a two- or four-chord cadence underneath it, first beginning on one beat of the pattern, and then beginning on a different beat, a sense of changing accent in the melody will be heard. This play of changing harmonic rhythm against constant melodic pattern is one of the basic techniques of this piece, and one I have never used before. Its effect, by change of accent, is to vary that which is in fact unchanging.

Steve Reich


Music for 18 Musicians
1. Pulses

Music for 18 Musicians
2. Section I (3:58)