Photo: Carolina Mariana Rodriguez

“Weird Music Is Still Good”: Erik Hall on Isolation and Pulling Off an Impossible Steve Reich-ian Feat

Finding himself at a loose end, Erik Hall doesn't indulge in Netflix marathons or spends time sorting out his closet, instead he recreates Steve Reich's seminal masterpiece Music for 18 Musicians in his basement. And then he tells PopMatters about it.

Music For 18 Musicians
Erik Hall
Western Vinyl
8 May 2020

Erik Hall is, generally, a pretty busy guy.

When he’s not making music with his one-man-band In Tall Buildings, he’s playing with Wild Belle and working on film scores. He also lists stints with Nomo and celebrated dream-pop purveyors His Name Is Alive on his musical resume. Uncharacteristically, he found himself between projects last winter, until an offhand comment from his wife, galvanized him into action. “One day, in passing, she said ‘Why haven’t you done a cover of Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians? which she knows is one of my favorite pieces of music?” says Hall. “It was like — ‘I don’t know, but I want to do that right now!'” Hall retreated to his basement home studio in Michigan, deconstructed the piece, and created something rather beautiful.

Describing his musical hiatus, Hall confesses, “I had been kind of distanced from all my other projects for a little bit of time. I hadn’t played in Nomo [a leftfield jazz/Afrobeat hybrid band] for a while. There’s a band that I play in called Wild Belle, which I play in on and off. That wasn’t particularly busy, and my last album as In Tall Buildings kind of came and went. I toured on that, and then, I guess I was a little disillusioned of trying to maintain a career in a rock band. I felt like switching gears. It was winter, and living where we live, it was a really good time to be in my studio doing something.”

The “something” that Hall chose to do wasn’t the stop-gap, grab-bag cover version album, so beloved of artists with a touch of writer’s block. He rolled his sleeves up and settled in to recreate Steve Reich’s 1976 ground-breaking composition as a completely solo project.

“I’m used to working on my own, and when I’m in my studio by myself, that just where I do the most work.” When asked about his peers in the solo recording realm, Hall admits, “I love thinking about people like Prince and McCartney, but there’s this misconception that people only started recording music at home in the modern age of digital music, and that’s not all true. People have had home studios since the 1970s, if not earlier. I love the photographs in some of those earlier McCartney records — like McCartney II and Ram. There’s one photograph of him by a tape machine, and he’s holding his kid in one arm and setting up a track with the other — that resonates with me.”

Putting together a piece of music like this isn’t as easy as selecting a beat on the drum box and jamming until the tape runs out. On the recording process, Hall was meticulous: “I took about as long to set up the recording as I did to execute the whole piece. There was a lot of trial and error in terms of which instruments of mine were going to sub in for the instruments on the original score and how I was going to capture them. Dialing in the patches on the Moog synthesizer to emulate the bass clarinet, microphone placements, and amp and tone settings. I did one section at a time, so I started with the opening and made decisions as I went, I didn’t dwell on anything, but I did trial and error different things as I moved forward.”

To keep it as organic as possible, Hall did as much as he could in single, live takes: “I did do it as a live performance when possible. If I’m totally honest, there were some re-dos and some second or third takes. But, as a rule, I really tried to get each part under my fingers and learn it well enough so I could execute it, but not obsess about perfecting every single thing, because I still wanted it to feel alive. I wanted it to live and breathe, the way a performance does when you’re doing it in a room with people. Not that I’m trying to trick anyone either, I just wanted it to have that kind of vitality to the performance.”

Hall will admit that he’s not the first rock musician to try on minimalism for size and has an idea why it’s the “go-to” classical genre for writers who want to move away from pop structures. “There’s something about the harmonic movement in a piece like Music for 18 Musicians , which is just so beautiful and deeply gratifying in the way that songs can be. There’s an arc to it that has a lot in common with various pop genres, even though it stems from Ghanaian drumming. I love Brian Eno — his ambient records and his rock records too. I love Can and Harmonia, and I love this kind of repetitive, almost meditative music. I like a lot of stuff that takes a long time to listen to.”

It’s not lost on him that many people accidentally find that they have more time on their hands to listen to music at the moment. “It seems that we’re coming back around to a place where people are really listening again, and they’re willing to go deep and listen to longer-form music. I love that; maybe that’s never gone away, but as an observer, five or ten years ago, it seemed like everything was going more towards pop, but it seems today that even pop is getting weird again. And weird music is still good.”

When asked if it’s a strange time to release a record, with huge chunks of the world under house arrest, Hall replied; “It’s a funny time, and it makes everyone assess their intentions as an artist, as an entertainer and as a member of the community at large. It’s weird, challenging, and scary, and it’s also somewhat of a reckoning. We have a responsibility to do what we’re meant to do, but it also comes with this great humility of knowing what we have already. I think there might be, hopefully, some sort of good that comes out of this in the end.”

A writer is only as good as his resources, whether it’s a rhyming dictionary, a set of oblique strategies cards, or the Beatles’ back catalog within easy reach. Hall, however, has two credos, which he always falls back on — two quotes by Allen Ginsburg and Kurt Vonnegut, respectively: “First thought, best thought,” and “Edit yourself, mercilessly.” Which one did he apply to the Reich piece?

“That’s the quandary that I always deal with: the question of which of those impulses to listen to and I’m always stuck somewhere between them, and I think it’s a good place to be. Reich made all of the hard decisions; he wrote the piece. He did what I think is the hard part. I get just to come in and just perform and record it. It was just an utter joy and a profoundly rewarding experience, just to get to sit and execute those parts. I’m very fortunate to get to put it out and that people get to hear it. I’m honored to be amongst the people who have recorded it — it’s humbling, and I really appreciate it.”

Music for 18 Musicians is a labor of love, executed superbly, by a man who put making a good piece of art over commercial interests. It puts Reich’s landmark work in a new context but retains the integrity and freshness of this piece. If this is a success, will the airwaves be filled with rockin’ versions of compositions by Philip Glass, Terry Riley, and La Monte Young? Is minimalism the new rock and roll? Hall laughs — “Maybe! There’s something so polite about it: its rock and roll, but it’s not quite punk. I feel that Satie is even more rock and roll than Reich — don’t quote me on that!”

Every child has a favorite toy. It goes everywhere with them, and it’s on their mind constantly. Sometimes, the child looks deeply at it and wonders how it works. What makes that thing so magical? So, the child takes it apart, just for the thrill of being able to put it back together. Erik Hall did that with Music for 18 Musicians and has made something thrilling and beautiful out of parts so complicated. It took a jewelers eye and a steady hand to reassemble them. I think Mr. Reich will approve.