Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians wasn’t my first encounter with new music*, but it is the early encounter of which I have the most vivid memory. I was seventeen years old. The night was unseasonably warm. I had been admitted to the emergency room with a kidney stone, unable to keep food down, unable to sleep. I had never been in such intense, sustained pain in my life. Even the pain after the corrective surgeries I had on my legs earlier that same year was bearable compared to what I went through curled up in the waiting room chair, waiting to be called. There wasn’t much they could do about the kidney stone directly, so they gave me some intense painkillers and anti-nausea medications and stuck an IV in my hand to hydrate me because I wasn’t able to take anything by mouth.
When I woke up an hour later, the hydration bag drained, I was floating, the world nebulous around me from the fatigue and the pain and the disorientation. I bundled myself into the back seat of the car and my father turned on the radio. And there was Music for 18 Musicians, and it sweetly pulsed through me, reminding me to breathe in, breathe out, breathe deep, and move with something bigger than myself. It ebbed and flowed as the instruments entered, exited, adjusted. We got home, I went upstairs and tuned in on my computer, which I put by the side of my bed – the piece was still playing – and I let the waves of sound wash me out to sea. Everything still hurt, and somehow I knew everything was going to be okay.
Subsequent listenings never had anything close to the same effect until tonight at Jordan Hall, my first time hearing the piece live. Callithumpian Consort was performing Music for 18 Musicians, as well as John Cage’s Apartment House 1776, as part of the annual SICPP (pronounced Sick Puppy). Watching the tireless mallets keep the music coursing along, seeing the musicians interact with each other, and being completely immersed in the sound was a truly amazing experience. At times the sheer volume was almost too intense to handle, but every time that thought flickered through my head, I knew it would soon erode, and so leaned back into it and let it carry me.
It was so much easier to pick out individual instruments and ideas than it was on the recordings, and the bright/dark contrasts were much more vivid. My ears played tricks on me as the sound bounced around Jordan; I was convinced for a few seconds that Gabriela Diaz’s bow was drawing the sound of four human voices out of her violin strings. After reading the composer’s detailed note, I found that deep breathing itself is written into the phases and phrases, pulsating notes for the duration of one or two breaths, a slow rise and fall. Is it any surprise that this music came to me and reminded me to breathe, during that long night five years ago?
SICPP has five more free concerts this week. I plan on being at a few of them.
* here defined as “the kind of music ensembles that bill themselves as “new music” ensembles may play” – the Internet argument of the week seems to be about the terminology of “new music” versus “contemporary music” and I don’t have an opinion about it other than neither of them really work but I also want people to know what I’m talking about
My first encounter with new music that I can remember was a few months earlier. I discovered George Crumb’s Black Angels around the same time that I read Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. The piece and the book are forever paired in my mind.