I can't pretend to any particularly deep knowledge of experimental music, but I've dabbled as a student and listener. So when a titan of modern experimental music like Steve Reich acknowledges a recording of one of his own pieces as "a really moving recording of the piece" and "a gorgeous and stunningly accurate CD of Music for 18 Musicians, from the heartland to the heart," I know enough to pay attention. Reich has consistently managed to invest his abstract and experimental compositions with real human heart and a populist spirit, as evidenced by his best known work, Different Trains, which was realized as a recording in collaboration with The Kronos Quartet. He's also dead-on about Minneapolis label Innova's release of GVSU's New Music Ensemble's reading of Music for 18 Musicians; it's mesmerizing, beautiful, and delicately realized, despite the sheer volume of notes.
Reich has always focused, more or less, on the effects of repetition and subtle change on music. As such, his work tends to be minimally composed but maximally realized, and in Music for 18 Musicians, he based the piece around a cycle of eleven chords. The cycle introduces and closes the piece in a section called "Pulses," and in between, eleven sections explore each chord. I know: it sounds dry and terribly clinical, but it's not.
The music is a cascade of notes, a kind of mechanized modulation of John Coltrane's sheets of sound approach. Instead of chaotic and improvised bursts of melody, the music swells and recedes like the ocean, the ensemble of strings, clarinets, pianos, marimbas, and xylophones softly urging the music into being. The dynamics couldn't be simpler, really: the percussive instruments lay down a steady rhythm while the cellos, violins, and clarinets breathe melodies against it. Here and there, the xylophones or marimbas step forward to outline a melody, or the strings will buildup into a rhythm. Subtle elements make a big difference here; when a shaker suddenly enters or a human voice is heard distantly, it resonates like a ripple in water. Shards of melody arise and dissipate in a way that should be familiar to fans of electronic artists like Aphex Twin or Autechre, and even fans of metal bands like Sunno))) or Boris.
This is because Reich's influence in popular music has emerged largely as a concern with texture. Music for 18 Musicians can be read as a meditation on sound and its properties, and it's beautifully balanced between rhythmic and melodic focus. It's simultaneously meticulous and organic. For the casual listener, this is Reich's greatest bequest, and GVSU's New Music Ensemble has clearly stepped to the front of the line with their sensitive and lucid recording, which makes use of Surround Sound and SACD technology for those equipped with such high-end options. It's a remarkably flexible piece and recording, whether you choose to delve with headphones or listen in the car.
In fact, the car may well be the ideal environment for Music for 18 Musicians. The music rises and falls gently like the landscape on a cross country drive, echoing the way guide rails seem to emerge from the ground and run parallel for a while before falling away again. When you were a kid, you could stare out the window for hours on these drives, because in a way, you never moved, even as the world arose and collapsed beside you. Now we look forward, making important decisions and guiding our lives, but Reich's piece is a reminder to sometimes look off to the side as we speed through the world.