Some 200 years from now, Steve Reich’s masterpiece Music for 18 Musicians will likely be regarded with the same admiration that’s now reserved for Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Premiered in 1976, this hypnotic opus was a game-changer for western classical music. Inspired partly by West African drumming and Indonesian gamelan, it has no conductor or soloist. Instead, its pulsing patterns highlight the ensemble as a whole.
“There is this sense that the piece unfolds as a sort of communal, listening-based decision,” explains Steven Schick, a professor of music at UCSD. “There’s a lot of the piece where everybody is playing, or nearly everybody, and everyone has his or her own material, and that material interlocks with everybody else’s, and you can’t take anything away without it becoming weaker. It is really one of the most joyful pieces you can possibly imagine, because you’re just building this thing together.”
Schick’s ensemble Red Fish Blue Fish, composed of UCSD graduate students, will perform Music for 18 Musicians with five members of the esteemed New York ensemble Bang on a Can All-Stars at Conrad Prebys Concert Hall on Wednesday, Jan. 18. (As part of the program, Reich himself will perform his piece Clapping Music, accompanied by Schick and members of Bang on a Can.)
In rehearsals, one of the biggest challenges has been getting into the piece’s repetitious, feather-light groove. To figure out the score’s distinct language—or “sound-world,” as Schick calls it—the best strategy is to just play it through.
“Sometimes you are in rehearsals, especially with conductors who are very finicky, and you play six seconds and they stop you, and they say, ‘Do it this way and that way.’ It doesn’t really work with this piece,” he says. “We spend a lot of time, especially in the early rehearsals, just playing.
“It’s more like a garage band than it is a symphony orchestra,” he adds. “Both the joy and the progress comes in playing with each other.”