About this work
Though Music for 18 Musicians includes repeated patterns, a steady tempo, and other such devices that characterize Reich's innovative works of the late 1960s and early 1970s, it is distinguished by an unprecedented harmonic variety and richness of sonority. In landmark compositions such as Piano Phase (1967) and Drumming (1971), Reich demonstrates a penchant for creating musical processes that are readily audible; in Music for 18 Musicians, organizational clarity is superseded by a more intuitive approach that takes aural appeal as its chief priority. This change in aesthetic begins a new phase in Reich's career and arguably marks the end of his reductive, minimalist period.
The harmonic structure for the entire work is introduced in the opening section: 11 lush, undulating chords, perhaps in imitation of electronic-studio trickery, successively fade in and out. These eleven harmonies define the formal layout of the entire composition: each of the following eleven sections is devoted to a particular chord. While Reich alludes to his earlier methods by limiting himself to only one chord within each section, the unfolding of musical material in Music for 18 Musicians does not adhere to a strict process; by abandoning the rigorous procedures of phase shifting, Reich leans toward free composition.
Although Reich's earlier Six Pianos (1973) and Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices, and Organ (1973) also show evidence of a less process-oriented style, neither of these works offers the harmonic variety of Music for 18 Musicians. Additionally, Music for 18 Musicians provides the first glimpse of Reich's skill and imagination as an orchestrator. In all sections, the composer explores unlikely sound combinations, from the urgent quirkiness of upper-register violin, piano, and xylophone to the dark resonance of bass clarinet, cello, and marimba, to the veiled presence of wordless voices. These colors and textures are juxtaposed and superimposed to create passages of near transparency as well as moments of grandeur; these foreshadow the larger, later orchestrations of Music for a Large Ensemble (1978), The Desert Music (1984), The Four Sections (1987), and Three Movements (1986). While in these other works Reich draws on more traditional, more considerable forces, Music for 18 Musicians occupies the border between stark experimentalism and orthodoxy; it thus stands not only as Reich's most important work, but also a milestone of the late twentieth century.