Hope for Hard Times – Music for 18 Musicians at the RCC Fringe

After the week we’ve had, people are actively seeking out ways to receive the tension, and find moments of peace in this complex, chaotic world. It’s quite apt then, that I managed to find some peace from one of the most complex and chaotic pieces ever composed.

Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians was released in 1978 and found critical acclaim, with critic’s delighting in it’s intricacy, sublime scale and harmonies. 4 years in the making, the Soundstream Collective (the University of Adelaide’s new music Ensemble-In-Residence) treated us to a rare live performance of the work at the Elder Hall as a part of the RCC Fringe.

Gabriella Smart, director of the Soundstream Collective, introduced the piece to the audience, highlighting that ‘this is a joyous piece of music, particularly if it’s the last one you’re going to be hearing for a while’, to a bemused chuckle from the audience. The ensemble filtered onto the stage, to a polite applause, before settling in their designated positions.

There is a pause, as the musicians collect themselves.

Amanda Grigg and Peter Overall (Maribmas 1 & 2 respectively) count in, and the piece begins. There are 14 movements, during which time the music moves between 4 pianos, 4 voices, 3 marimbas, 2 Xylophones, 2 Clarinets, a Cello, a Violin, a vibraphone and maracas. With no conductor, the musicians rely on each other to keep the beat and melody lines in sync, often trading chord progressions and melodies between each other as the music swells and moves.

To hear this piece is one thing, to see it performed live is another. Seeing this ensemble at work was a joy – they performed like a well oiled machine, each part knowing it’s role and executing it perfectly when required. You can almost see a particular melody line move around the musicians across the stage.

The amount of effort put in by all performers was striking, from Simone Slattery and Anthony Albrecht riding the music with every stroke of their bows, to pianos Michael Ierace, Ting Yun, Yundi Yuan and Simon Pazos rhythmically commanding their instruments.

The most striking thing about this piece is how the chords and melodies build – they are established and played for a few bars, before an element changes or is added, then another, then another, driving the music forward. This is almost handed over to another instrument, who picks up that melody and adds to it, as the previous instrument fades away. 

This music filled the hall – a bubble of insulation from the outside world. Never mind what was happening beyond those four walls, never mind what anxieties or stresses you had as you sat down. They were gone now. The sounds filling your ears were joyous, uplifting, the power of humanity in its best light, set to music.

The juxtaposition of the old building and towering organ with modern, busy music capturing how as we all move on, some things still remain the same.

The piece came to a soothing, natural conclusion at the end of a sublime hour, to a stunned silence. The audience sat, silent and spellbound before breaking into a rapturous standing ovation. 

As we wandered out into the cool night air, it was like a weight had been lifted from our shoulders. From the darkness, a ray of light had shone through, something to say, it’ll be alright in the end.

I implore you to listen to this glorious hour – it won’t be the same as the brilliance of this performance, but it may help you find some solitude in these dark times.

Photographs courtesy of @eightpercentjazz.

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