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Like Clockwork

by Ali Hibbs on March 16, 2011


The composer: Steve Reich


It was only after stagehands wheeled the fourth grand piano onto the stage that the scope of what was about to transpire came fully into focus. Even the title of Steve Reich’s 1974 opus Music for 18 Musicians is a wry play on scale—a “minimalist” masterwork relying on maximalist resources, talent and audience stamina. In their moving and virtually flawless performance of the piece, New York City new music ensemble Signal actually employed 20 performers at certain points to cover all the interlocking parts, emerging from the hour-long marathon composition visibly exhausted but glowing with endorphins, not unlike endurance athletes.

Minimalism, as a genre, has faced allegations of emotionlessness over the years, due to its mathematical precision and favoring of repetition over florid lyricism. But the two selections performed Saturday night, pulled from both ends of Reich’s career, offered excellent evidence to the contrary.

A telling moment came during the second movement of Double Sextet, the 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning piece that opened the show. After a fast opening section, built upon the pulsing piano and marimba parts that have long been Reich’s trademark, the pulse dropped out almost entirely for a soft and mournful conversation to take place between strings and woodwinds. With twelve musicians, configured in two sextets, the piece plays on the idea of an ensemble performing against a recording of itself. In fact, this is often how the piece is handled, but Signal’s approach, dramatically cued by conductor Brad Lubman, came off as a more organic conversation between entities, each echoing the other in an attempt to understand rather than speak over its counterpart. By the time the mallet instruments resumed their manic cyclical patterns for the third and final movement, the piece as a whole felt as if it were reaching for emotional climax, not unlike the methods of post-rockers Godspeed You! Black Emperor (who, no doubt, drew influence from Reich), rather than simply seeing a system of logic to its soulless conclusion.

After intermission, the stage became a contemporary American Gamelan, pianos, marimbas, xylophones, strings, woodwinds and vocalists arranged around one metallophone player, who would cue the piece’s changes in lieu of a conductor. Once set in motion, the ensemble became a sort of Rube Goldberg machine, sustaining itself due to the precise interlocking polyrhythms that constitute Music for 18 Musicians’ mechanics. The piece is an 11-chord cycle, built upon two separate pulses, one of insistence in the mallets and the other following the natural breath of the vocalists. The effect, as Reich himself explained, is like waves lapping against the shore. Developed over the course of an hour—mallet players swapping and doubling instruments, bass clarinets swelling below the mix, and one maraca player tirelessly holding the tempo—the piece became tidal.

These marine analogies are not incidental, as Music for 18 Musicians, like Double Sextet, unfolds organically and effortlessly, despite its regimental composition (the written chart itself appears as a strange geometric configuration of repeat signs). It’s aspiration, then, is toward something larger than complex formalism or emotional drama, something akin to the awe one feels in the face of nature’s clockwork. The several seconds of crystalline silence that followed Signal’s final note and preceded the applause were testament to its success.