Photos: Sarah Faraday
James Birchall, an “electro-acoustic composer, lo-fi/noise/folk artist and electronica producer” from Manchester, England, records under the name Rough Fields. His one-man recording of Steve Reich‘s Music for 18 Musicians (winds, strings, percussion, and voices, 1974-76) is the result of his ongoing fascination with/love of the piece, ever since he first heard it in a composition class. He first experienced the piece as relief from some of the earlier music his teacher had played for him (the teacher seemed relived himself, according to Mr. Birchall’s liner notes).
After this initial experience, along with exposure to other minimalists, Mr. Birchall delved deeply into Music‘s score, “studying the parts, pulling apart and reassembling the phases and patterns” with the enthusiasm of the converted. His arrangement of Music (presumably made with Mr. Reich’s blessing, since he is thanked in the notes) includes Mr. Birchall’s voice, “recovered strings,” “wheezy melodicas,” other improvised instruments, guitars, mandolins, and more. I don’t think the sound of the piece is damaged, though it is definitely changed, and I really miss the bass clarinets.
Earlier recordings of this piece leave Reich’s instrumentation intact, and the approach to the music is different in some ways from that of Rough Fields. The Ensemble Modern recording, on BMG Classics, is sleek and clear—it almost gleams. That seems to me to bring out the postmodern quality of Music for 18 Musicians—a shimmering surface that you often hear from ensembles that specialize in postmodernist music, such as the Kronos Quartet.
Reich’s own premiere recording with his Ensemble, on ECM, is a little rougher-sounding, and I mean that in a positive way. I’ve always heard Minimalism, especially in its earliest stages, as if it were as much an offshoot of Modernism as a reaction to it. Music for 18 Musicians is a stylistic break with Minimalism in that its harmonic rhythm (the rate at which chords change) is far more rapid than in minimalist music: “There is more harmonic movement in the first 5 minutes of Music for 18 Musicians than in any other complete work of mine to date,” Reich writes. This faster harmonic rhythm ties Music to the postmodern and even alt-classical. But Rough Fields‘ performance, with its spikier rhythmic and metrical emphases, looks “back” to Minimalism’s Modernist roots. The piece begins and ends with “Pulses,” which state the harmonic content of the piece in rapid fashion. In Reich’s recording, when the pulses come back at the end, they seem (to my ears, anyway) to be the strangest, newest part of the piece.
An important part of Rough Fields‘ aesthetic is the inclusion of natural sounds and field recordings. These are used in this recording of Music for 18 Musicians, and contribute to its very contemporary, friendly sound. It is, in its natural rough touches and lack of rough edges, very much a recording of Music for this moment.