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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Over three decades ago a masterpiece of minimalism was born. In 1976, "Music for 18 Musicians" by composer Steve Reich mesmerized listeners and perhaps confounded a few critics and composers at the time who preferred the thorny, atonal style that was then in vogue in academic circles. But in the New York Times John Rockwell described the richly layered plains of oral color of the piece and noted a standing ovation at the premiere performance.

The Steve Reich Ensemble released an ECM recording of the work in 1978.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: "Music for 18 Musicians" was written for instruments including strings, percussion, woodwinds and voices that imitate instrumental sounds. Sections of repeated material ebb and flow around a cycle of 11 chords. There's no conductor, and the piece can run anywhere from 60 to 75 minutes, depending on how long the players choose to repeat various sections. Composer Steve Reich gave us a quick overview of the work.

Mr. STEVE REICH (Composer): I used ideas that I had discovered in West Africa and in Bali where players, by giving cues using percussion instruments, alert other players as to changes in section or as to changes in tempo. In my piece there are no changes in tempo but there are changes of section. And the vibraphone player in "Music for 18 Musicians" is in a sense our conductor.

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HANSEN: Now a new recording has garnered wide praise and appeared on several Best of 2007 lists. A modest group from the Midwest took on this ambitious piece. The Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble from Allendale, Michigan, led by music director Bill Ryan.

Mr. BILL RYAN (Music Director, Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble): The ensemble is relatively new. I started in the spring semester of 2006. That was our first concert. And so our second concert was Music for 18. In addition to the students there were a few faculty involved and there was also some alumni involved and a community member as well.

HANSEN: This piece, "Music for 18 Musicians," some have called it the Everest of Steve Reich's work. So how did they react that you told them that you're going to take on Music for 18 Musicians.

Mr. RYAN: Well, a few people could not sign up before I had finished the sentence inviting them because they knew the piece that well and were so excited about the opportunity. They understood how rare a chance is to actually perform the work. And others, frankly, did not know who Steve Reich was, never heard the piece or the music. And kind of just trusted me when I explained a little bit about the piece.

HANSEN: What do you consider the most challenging part of pulling the piece together.

Mr. RYAN: Well, the greatest challenge, I think, for the group was to maintain kind of a focus for an hour and have this intensity that continues with you throughout the piece. Endurance was difficult for many of the players. But just to be consistent for 60 minutes was a challenge.

HANSEN: Is it easy to get lost as you're playing?

Mr. RYAN: I think maybe initially as we were just reading things for the first time, maybe the first few weeks, we had those kind of issues. But the piece is filled with oral cues that kind of trigger moments. And so even if you do get off slightly, it's very easy, actually, once you know the piece and understand the presentation to kind of jump back in and rejoin the group.

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HANSEN: Reich doesn't seem the kind of composer who requires that everybody perform the piece exactly as written.

Mr. RYAN: No. I think he has some pieces actually that he probably wants that precision but he might write in his score repeat it four to eight times. And so the performers have to decide how much is enough and then they would kind of cue movement past those repeats. So technically there were no two rehearsals or performances that were ever the same.

And I find it very exciting, so did the performers, that there was this kind of edge going into a performance where we didn't quite know how it would be realized and that was kind of excited. It helped, I think, maintain their focus throughout the whole work.

HANSEN: Two of the players are with you in the studio and we'd like to bring them in. We have xylophone players Alex Hamill and Sam Gould. First of all, hi, Alex.

Mr. ALEX HAMILL (Xylophone Player, Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble): How's it going, Liane?

HANSEN: Very well. And hi, Sam.

Mr. SAM GOULD (Xylophone Player, Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble): Hey, how are you?

HANSEN: Very well. We want you to demonstrate the kind of collaboration that was required between the instruments in this piece. So tell us a little bit about what you're going to play.

Mr. HAMILL: Okay. Sam and I, like you said, we play xylophone, identical instruments facing right at each other. And a big part of Steve Reich's music is what he calls, you know, his process of phasing, which his basically two players playing the exact same musical material but different sort of phases in time. And, I don't know, maybe ten or eleven minutes into the piece, Sam and I participate as sort of building up what you would call a melody at that moment in time.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. HAMILL: And the way it works is that after, you know, as the bed of music was stabilized, then Sam would come in and build a melody up one note at a time, adding one note each time, through. And then once his was established he'd fade down a little bit and I would add the exact same melody but at a different point in time, one note at a time. It creates sort of a counterpoint.

HANSEN: Okay.

Mr. RYAN: And the first thing is Sam will build his melody up one note at a time so we can hear it and then he'll stop and we'll bring me in later.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. RYAN: It's a single note at a time. He's adding to his pattern and it fills out and you get more information.

(Soundbite of xylophone music)

Mr. RYAN: And his pattern is complete and now he'll de crescendo a bit and then Alex enters. And it continues the same process. Single note at a time building.

(Soundbite of xylophone music)

Mr. RYAN: Then his pattern completes itself and they'll shortly switch to the pulsing alternating notes.

(Soundbite of xylophone music)

HANSEN: You mentioned you were facing one another now in the studio. And...

Mr. HAMILL: Absolutely.

HANSEN: Well, there's no conductor, so do you have to face one another?

Mr. HAMILL: That is typically - like, in the drawings of the stage setup, that's how he indicates that - 'cause a lot of the parts are grouped in pairs, and so we'll - you know, we cue each other with a lot of nods and kind of waving sticks at each other to make sure we can come in, you know, at the right point in time.

HANSEN: Or hitting him over the head with one of your mallets if he's not there on time.

Mr. HAMILL: Absolutely.

HANSEN: Bill Ryan, can I bring you back into our conversation?

Mr. RYAN: Absolutely.

HANSEN: How long did it take to get the piece ready for performance.

Mr. RYAN: Well, we started rehearsals in early September of 2006 and rehearsed it two, four hours weekly until our fall concert, which was the end of November.

HANSEN: Well, all of your hard work culminated in a performance at New York's Bang on a Can Festival last spring. And it was an early morning performance at the Winter Garden Atrium. And you charmed the critics. Alex Ross wrote that succeeded in holding 400 people transfixed at 4:00 am. And I don't think he means you were putting them to sleep. We spoke to some of the players in your group and, obviously, it was a magical moment for them as well. Here is some of what they had to say.

Mr. ALEXANDER COLEUS (Clarinet Performance Major, Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble): I'm Alexander Coleus. I am the clarinet performance major. While we were performing and the sun coming up and everything, and especially right after we got done, all the people that stood up. We had the 400-something people did the standing ovation. Just to see all these people, how many people that we touched and how inspiring that it was, this performance for everyone, that was just an incredible experience.

Ms. MARY CROSSMAN (Voice, Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble): My name is Mary Crossman and I did voice in this piece. It was really interesting to have a crowd of people and you could tell that they were all there for the minimalistic music and the new music. Like, when the piece ended usually you hear people cough or you hear, like, general noises from the audience. But it was, like, dead silent. All you could hear was buzzing from, like, the lights and the equipment around. It was just so quiet. I don't think I've heard that before after a piece is finished.

Mr. KURT ELLENBERGER (Pianist, Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble): I'm a pianist. My name if Kurt Ellenberger. I'm 45 and I'm a faculty member. I think there's a spiritual aspect to this piece that it really overwhelms you being part of it. Really just sitting in the middle of all sound for that length of time and just experiencing that piece. It's a very deep experience. And I think sometimes as musicians we lose that. And to me this really brought back a sense of wow to performing like that, which I hadn't really felt for a while.

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HANSEN: Bill Ryan is director of the group. What went through your mind at the Winter Garden performance?

Mr. RYAN: Well, that was magical for me as well just to see my ensemble kind of up there in this environment. I mean, here we are this group from the middle of the Midwest somewhere that no one had heard of, playing at this really significant new music event, the "Bang On A Can Marathon." It was their 20th anniversary marathon in this beautiful facility. It was just glorious to see the sun. The sun rose up as we were finishing the piece. It was just a wonderful experience.

HANSEN: Well, the piece has been immortalized now in a multi-channel super-audio CD on Innova Records. Glowing reviews. It was on many top 10 lists. Why do you think this piece and this performance has struck such a chord among people who listen to it?

Mr. RYAN: Well, I think it's one of the most significant pieces to come out of the 20th century. I think it's a miracle of a piece. It's a 60-minute kind of glorious ride through these pulsating textures and these very energetic rhythms. It was an amazing challenge for us to try and realize and the fact that we were able to do that and go so far beyond it, it's just an amazing ride and we're enjoying it very much.

HANSEN: Bill Ryan is director of the Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble, and he joined us from the studios of WGBU in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Thank you so much.

Mr. RYAN: Thank you. Thanks for having us.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: You can see a video of GBSU New Music Ensemble and hear an extended interview with composer Steve Reich on our Web site, NPR.org/music.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

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