Nineteen Musicians

I was given a very rare and precious treat yesterday, coincidentally, one day after my birthday. The Museum Ludwig in Cologne currently shows a collection of Gerhard Richter’s abstract paintings, about 40 of them, mostly very large ones. Now Gerhard Richter is a big fan of Steve Reich’s music, and because the museum also shows an exhibition about the sixties (beat poets, hippies, minimalism) that contains some Steve Reich material, they thought it would fit in well to book him for a concert.

So yesterday, Steve Reich actually showed up, and was accompanied by the Ensemble Modern.

Their first piece was the first section from Drumming, played by four people (yesterday, one of them was Steve Reich, of course wearing his black baseball cap which is probably permanently adhered to his head) on 8 tuned small drums. They were playing in the hallway of the Museum Ludwig which was crowded with Steve Reich fans (I don’t know if the museum has ever been so full of people), watching the show from everywhere on the same floor, from the floor above, and from the stairways. The performance was stunning, lots of rhythmically difficult phase shiftings, lots of energy, wonderful.


 
After this short piece we had half an hour to walk around in the museum, and of course, take a look at the huge Richter paintings. This one called “Atem” (Breath) was the one that I liked most. I have no idea how he does that, technically – the result of his layering and scraping is very three-dimensional but in a slightly unsettling way, my poor little mammal brain was not able to really understand what the eyes saw. I liked that ­čÖé

Then through a door in the basement into the wonderful Cologne Philharmonie which sits right next to the Museum Ludwig. The main act for this evening was none other than Music For Eighteen Musicians, a piece that is by far my favorite piece of music ever. In the early eighties (I think 1980, but I’m not sure), I saw the European premiere of this piece and I remember that it was almost a religious experience for me – and not only for me, but apparently for many people in the audience. I have never again experienced something like that – being lifted up by that pulsating rhythm, then going through a series of beautiful rhythmic/harmonic variations, and finally landing again. It stills brings tears to my eyes every time I remember the ending of the 1980 premiere – the audience was completely stunned after this trip, there was silence for almost 10 minutes … and then standing up and cheering for a long time … the presence of gratitude was overwhelming.


 
Yesterday’s performance was very close to that, it was almost perfect technically, good enough to transport the audience to that transcendental place, and back. For some reason I always think of this piece as a giant shimmering spaceship, not unlike the mothership from Close Encounters. It takes us slowly up, goes through these permutations, rotating and twinkling like a huge diamond, and then slowly getting down again after an hour. It is fuelled by the presence of the audience; the musicians are its engine – and they have to be totally present and totally committed to make this happen. This spaceship image was even more appropriate yesterday because the beautiful interior of the Philharmonie seems to have some similarity to the mothership.

What an evening, what a beautiful treat. This time, the silence after the piece lasted not 10 minutes, but only a few seconds – one person started to applaud, and the spell was broken and everyone started clapping and cheering. Maybe people are different today than they were 30 years ago, and also, the piece is a classic today, maybe the largest musical monument of the 20th century (for me it is), and many people know it and it is no longer so surprising.

While listening, I couldn’t help but noticing how my mind stayed in control most of the time, preventing me from being truly moved. Strange that so few music lovers talk about this, it is the most striking thing to me when listening to a concert like this (but maybe many people don’t have such a problem with their heads?) – how difficult it is to get beyond the mind and beyond thinking, analyzing, comparing, commenting, and to really listen with an open heart, and to be really moved. I found myself noticing this, and trying not to stay in the mind, and noticing that of course this doesn’t help.

Fortunately, at least for a while, my mind finally stopped yesterday, and as always when this happens, it happens completely on its own, completely beyond my control. Some sudden change in the music triggers something deep and before my mind can react, it is pushed aside, making room for being moved, being present and still. Then the tears flow, what a relief, I can finally be here without being encaged in my head. This is the “religious” aspect for me – that this powerful piece of music with its merciless beauty, when executed so well, can stop my head, opening the door to what is real.


 
Now why is this blog entry called “Nineteen Musicians”? because yesterday, there were 19 musicians playing “Music For 18 Musicians”. Beyond all the stuff that was going on in my head, it was simply wonderful and very interesting to see the musicians at work, to watch how they managed to play these multiple interlocking rhythms, how they exchanged their positions at the various instruments during the various parts of the piece. Seeing this made the structure of the composition much more transparent – I wish there was a DVD showing the making of, maybe looking at the ensemble from an above position. But I bought a DVD showing the Ensemble Modern playing Reich’s City Life – looking forward to that!

Steve Reich, photo credit: Jeffrey Herman