Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians is an interesting work to approach in a repertory sense; although it is fully scored out and quite practical to perform, its rather unique instrumentation calls for an ensemble of the kind that generally doesn't tumble out every time one opens the door and is, in itself, kind of a special circumstance. Add to that the prospect of recording and one encounters a monolithic obstacle indeed -- the 1978 ECM recording of the work made by Steve Reich and Musicians that seems so definitive in terms of Music for 18 Musicians that even Reich falls somewhat short of it in a second performance recorded with his group in 1996. Mounting the work for a revival in honor of Reich's 70th birthday, the Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble of Allendale, MI -- way west Michigan, about 25 minutes north of Holland -- decided to throw caution to the wind and record a version of Music for 18 Musicians as the response to its live performance proved encouraging.
Innova Recordings took note of the project and got it out on disc post haste; there was good reason for that, as it is really a splendid performance. It feels a shade faster than is the norm, but times out about three minutes longer than most other recordings. The choice of cover image -- a shot from up in the air, showing landscape of the type usually found in rural Michigan -- is well chosen, as this seems in concord with the effect of this performance. Whereas the 1978 original might sound like one is standing to one side of the tarmac, watching the jets arrive at daybreak, leader Bill Ryan and the GVSU New Music Ensemble take Reich's music up into the air. There isn't as much emphasis on pulsating low tones as in other versions, and chattering music in higher registers is heard with bell-like clarity; at times it has an almost crystalline, music box-like effect. The added brightness works very well within certain sections and it particularly makes a difference at the start of "Section VI," where the effect is almost dazzling. Innova's Steve Reich: Music for 18 Musicians featuring Bill Ryan and the GVSU New Music Ensemble, makes it clear that some new music ensembles in the "hinterlands" are just as accomplished as their brethren in cities like New York, San Francisco, or Chicago. It also sheds some light on possible variability within a piece that might not allow for much variability at all. Well done, GVSU!