Getting the best of you.
Getting the best of you.

If you have never listened to Music For 18 Musicians by Steve Reich, I will tell you right now: you probably won't like it. Not exactly in the you-won't-get-it type of not liking it, but because it is actually painful to listen to. The piece begins with the marimbas pounding out a single tone in quarter notes, quickly replaced by the same single tone in eighth notes. "This is music?" you ask yourself. Then the set of high female voices come in piercing like ghosts, the clarinets squawk, and you look down at the time realizing this chaos is an hour long. "Why am I sitting through this?" you mutter. However, after listening to it no fewer than 158 times now, (yes, in its entirety, and yes my software is tracking each play through) I can say that I am fully and completely obsessed.

There's something about the torture of the listening to 18 and the way it rewards the listener who has the bravery simply to stay. Its beauty is in the tiny undulations and morphings to its shape over the course of an hour, the 18 musicians each coming in and out of the picture, as if listening to one square foot of the ocean, each ripple and new piece of plankton a slightly different melodic turn.


18 doesn't stop. There are no rests. The eighth note "pulses" that begin the piece hop and skip across instruments in the 11 parts but they never go away. The vibraphones act as the leader over the other instruments, signaling the piece's major melodic shifts with short melodic cues, like a grandfather clock announcing the passage of time. As you listen to the piece over and over, your ear begins to anticipate these shifts to the point that you swear you could reconstruct the entire hour if needed. When the piece enters its middle (the moment the pulses expand from marimbas to maracas), you believe there could be no larger tectonic shift in all of music.

Maybe like all obsessions, 18 works by making you work. This is not a piece to have playing in the background of your day; you would be better served with simple white noise. You must sit and work out the nuances as it unfolds in front of you. But when you finally arrive at the end (a near replication of the piece's beginning), you feel invigorated, like you finally found land. If you have an hour to pass and want to try it, you should take a listen.

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