ALBUM REVIEW: Erik Hall - Music for 18 Musicians

Electronic music owes a hell of a lot to Steve Reich. Phasing, tape loops, artificial feedback: the minimalist composer was without a doubt a pioneer. In the 1960s, whilst driving a cab, Reich spent his time spare time creating ground-breaking music via experimentation with new innovations in recording technology. Taking a brief sojourn to Ghana to study music, he drew on their distinct use of rhythm and also studied Balinese gamelan music in the USA. He then went on to write numerous pieces which revolutionised music across all genres. His arguably most important piece is the seminal work: Music for 18 Musicians.

Fans have all been highly vocal in their praises of this work: names such as Brian Eno, Matt Black and David Bowie who famously described it as “Balinese gamelan music cross-dressing as minimalism.” And now to add to this list is Michigan composer Erik Hall, who has paid homage by recreating Reich’s masterpiece, solo.

Written between 1974-1976, with this work Reich translated minimalism – often perceived as elite and elusive - to the language of mainstream audiences. Through the application of classic minimalist technique but on a much wider scale, the piece delivers an almost ethereal, trance like feeling. Based on a cycle of 11 chords, the piece is tightly structured in motion, and takes a very well-disciplined ensemble (of at least 18 musicians) to play. But Hall, through the use of multi-track recording played all the parts himself, one at a time, which requires a different – but just as difficult – kind of discipline.

Before entering the music world, Erik Hall was at the University of Michigan where he studied music and audio engineering. He has now released three albums under the pseudonym In Tall Buildings and has appeared at festivals including Coachella and Lollapalooza.

There is a sleekness to Hall’s version; a serenity not found in other versions. This can be attributed to his swapping of violins for guitars amongst other instrumental changes. It is calmer, the changes more subtle and overall a lot lighter than other versions such as the famed 1978 recording.

But Hall’s version has its flaws. And these can also be attributed to his deviation from the instrumentation Reich originally intended for the piece. Hall doesn’t express the aggression delivered by the hypnotic cross-rhythmic vibraphones, the soothing tone of the female singers, or the harsh underlay of the piano notes.

Neither does it convey the building urgency of the later sections: VI to IX. In part IX of the the 1978 recording: the swift violins lead the charge, then overtaken by clashing piano riffs until all of it makes way for the striking vibraphones to create a mesmerising collage of instrumental fierceness.

The section is a personal highlight for me, and I was disappointed to find its beauty lacking in Hall's version. Reich’s instrumentation was deliberate and well thought out for these reasons, and in changing the instruments, Hall has markedly transformed the vibrant aesthetics of the piece, with both positive and negative results.

Some musicians look up to Music for 18 Musicians as a holy book: a work to be cherished, devoted to and majorly influenced by. To alter a holy book would be considered blasphemous. But change underpins minimalism and in the case of Reich, it is welcomed with open arms. Indeed it is what Reich is all about.

If one looks at the entirety of music, beyond the narrow walls of pop music, it is clear that Reich is probably one of the most influential composers of all time, and in his own way, Hall has paid an excellent tribute to Reich's genius. Hall’s version is smooth and accessible: it is a glowing, flowing journey in electronic minimalism. The noticeable use of the electronic format has given a rebirth to Reich’s classic: potentially endearing Reich to a new generation of music lovers and hopefully conquering the tastes of countless techno and IDM fans.

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