Ensemble Signal: Music for 18 Musicians

Ensemble Signal reproduce Steve Reich's '70s minimalist masterpiece with inhuman precision.
Ensemble Signal
Music for 18 Musicians
Harmonia Mundi

In May, New York’s Ensemble Signal released one of a very few commercial recordings of Music for 18 Musicians, composer Steve’s Reich’s seminal work of minimalism from the mid-’70s. Signal, founded by Lauren Radnofsky and Brad Lubman in 2008, have toured the world, released five recordings, and received wide acclaim for their vitality and precision. Here, the group reproduces fellow New Yorker Steve Reich’s 1978 release on ECM with impeccable fidelity. The work contains eleven “Sections”, bookended by two movements called “Pulses”. The orchestration comprises of violin, cello, female vocals, pianos, maracas, marimbas, xylophones, metallophone, clarinets, and bass clarinets. Based wholly on an eleven-chord cycle, the work explores the pulsating auditory sensation caused by the onset and location of the various pitches in space. Built on meticulous repetitions, the work concerns itself only with what’s pure and right, musically speaking.

While most music assumes the task of finding home — that note or chord that ties things up and makes the makes the whole journey worthwhile —Music for 18 Musicians finds home at the start, and never leaves. Every subsequent movement comes as a resolution you never knew was needed. Any purer, and you’d be listening to an infinitely sustained, spectrum-spanning major chord played by a million hand-holding citizens of the world. While the work cannot be described as devoid of conflict, it tenses and relaxes so subtly that even the tension is relaxation by the standards of most other music. Like Terry Riley’s In C, a minimalist masterpiece of a decade prior, layers are added and removed with such care that any change at all is given the utmost respect. In the first notes of “Pulses”, the work materializes with stunning clarity. Instruments come into focus immediately, sounding like a team of archers firing a single target: sometimes they all hit a single spot, other times in perfect, geometric formation. Other times still, one arrow splits another, cleanly and silently: a perfect and an instantaneous arrival coupled with a quiet and unassuming departure.

Over the first few sections, the piece builds from meditations on single notes and chords, its passages formed by simple addition and subtraction, crescendo and decrescendo. It’s music that couldn’t offend your sensibilities if you wanted it to. Baths of harmonies cycle over and over again; melodies slowly grow longer and stronger through the many cycles, never over- or under-asserting themselves. Instruments claw their way in from beneath to emerge and eventually subsume others, briefly take their turn as lead, and blend back into the mix. Bright and airy, the vocals blend seamlessly, and the bass clarinets saw gently as if tracing a fine piece of wood. With “Section 5” comes a more prominent change in the form of a wonderful new piano theme, and with “Section 11”, a welcome variation on an original theme, simultaneously foreign and strangely familiar. Throughout the hour-long experience, the piece never once grows uncomfortable with itself, never falters or questions its path: “The way is straight and true. Just follow yourself,” a sign tells you. “Okay, sign, I will,” you say to yourself. And you do.

The whole thing feels very universal. It blends musical styles and cultures to the point that Music for 18 Musicians transcends style and culture. At the roots of this work are patterns, the very musical traditions of earth: the frameworks of folk, pop, and classical musics. This music is easy to appreciate because its experimentation remains firmly within the bounds of structure and intuition. Objects interact in compositionally governed ratios, instantly clear and recognizable—the perfect soundtrack for a child as he or she lays awake, pondering what it is to become someone.

In a sense, the ensemble’s work is a difficult one to evaluate. With such an immensely challenging piece to perform, the ensemble deserves commendation for even trying, and indeed, its rendition adheres to the original miraculously—no need for creative embellishment. In this sense, there’s not much to say about Ensemble Signal’s particular recording, except that it’s flawless—in pitch, in volume, in timing. Furthermore, given the technology of the day, Signal produce an even cleaner recording than 1978’s. And perhaps here lie both its strength and weakness. It’s tempting to describe Music for 18 Musicians as otherworldly or inhuman, but perhaps it’s just not about anything human. It conveys a message neither political nor social but rather scientific and aesthetic. It’s music about patterns, and here, that’s quite refreshing.

RATING 9 / 10