Composed between 1974 and 1976 and premiering at the Town Hall in New York City in April 1976, Steve Reich‘s Music for 18 Musicians was a milestone in minimalist composition. It marked a quantum leap in measuring minimalism‘s potential, adding warmth and resonance to a genre that was often perceived as cold and clinical. Among the many, many fans of Reich’s piece is film composer and multi-instrumentalist Erik Hall.
Raised in Chicago, Hall attended the University of Michigan and discovered the piece while driving in a blizzard from Toronto to Ann Arbor, with a CD (on loan from his school’s library) playing in the car. A love affair with the music began. It wasn’t until years later after he set up a recording studio in his Southwest Michigan home that the idea of recreating the piece started to take shape. The original instrumentation consists of violin, cello, female voice, piano, maracas, marimba, xylophone, metallophone, clarinet, and bass clarinet. By playing all the instruments himself, Hall simplified the process by sticking to electric guitar, prepared piano, and Moog synthesizer (with room mics capturing the air around each device), recording one layer at a time during February 2019.
It almost seems like a parlor trick, sort of a “let’s see if I can really do this” type of artistic gambit. A musician of lesser skill may turn out a sloppy, inferior version of the piece. But Hall pulls it off, and quite spectacularly. Music obsessives who feel the need to do A/B testing between Reich’s 1976 Town Hall recording and Hall’s 21st-century rural Michigan home recording will likely find deviations. That’s a perfectly acceptable result of “covers”, notably when the instrumentation differs so significantly. But Hall has created a profoundly reverent version of a piece that has stood the test of time and withstood a variety of diverse adaptations.
Reich’s composition is based on a cycle of 11 chords. A small piece of music is based on each chord, and it returns to the initial cycle at the end. One of the things that makes the piece so mesmerizing is how the different sections – beginning with “Pulses”, then moving on to Sections I through XI and concluding with “Pulses II” – flow so seamlessly into one another like an uninterrupted medley. The pieces so effortlessly transition from one to another that it can be challenging to keep track of what section is playing at any given time. Not that it really matters. In most minimalist pieces, it helps to get lost in the music.
It’s certainly a testament to Hall’s skill that he’s able to conjure up such a dense, layered sound so committed to the material with only three instruments – and all by himself. The use of prepared pianos certainly helps, as the different methods used to doctor the instrument help to create such unique sounds. Of course, a Moog synthesizer is capable of endless sonic possibilities, and Hall uses this to great advantage, particularly in the electronic pulses that dart in and out of the piece and any moment that requires a percussive element. The electric guitar may be the least diverse instrument of the three used here, but it helps to modernize and transform the sound of the piece, as no electric guitar was used in Reich’s original version. It provides something of an update but never, ever sounds like a cheap gimmick shoehorned into the piece to appease guitar fetishists.
Hall, who has released three albums under the moniker In Tall Buildings in addition to his film scores, admits that the project is an audacious one. “I’m aware of the inherent audacity of the project,” he writes in the album’s press materials, “but I couldn’t resist the simple joy of getting to participate in this music I’ve loved so much for so long.” Hall’s love for Music for 18 Musicians is evident here, and his dedication to the project is not only deeply admirable on an artistic level; it may very well create legions of newly minted Steve Reich fans.