How to organize a live performance of Reich's _Music for 18 Musicians_?
November 18, 2021 2:18 PM   Subscribe

Have you been involved with a performance of Music for 18 Musicians (or similar Reich pieces)? What should someone who wants to help fund & organize a successful performance of this piece know?

I've wanted to attend a good live performance of this piece for years, and my primary strategy has been watching the concert listings on Reich's site to see if there was anything nearby or available by travel. This has not worked out so far (and apparently might only pay off if I plan a trip to Europe around it).

Last weekend I attended a Beethoven symphony conducted by a USC grad student that he'd put together, and it was first rate. He's a friend of a friend, so we got to talking afterwards about what was involved, and started wondering if it would be possible to help organize the Music for 18 Musicians performance that I'd like to attend in Southern California.

It's definitely not a conventional classical/conducted piece, though -- in fact, from the notes available, it appears to be intentionally differentiated in this way. I'd bet conventional ensemble experience would still be an asset, but I also expect there might be some necessary differences in how rehearsal and performance are executed in order to make a performance come off well.

If you've been involved with a performance of the piece (or were close to people who have been), what would you say that people who want to make it happen should know about how to make it successful?
posted by weston to Media & Arts (9 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Can you clarify a few things for us -

When will he graduate? Does he have any experience with contemporary repertoire?

About the Beethoven show:
. What was the demographic of the players (university students, recent graduates, professionals)? If students, were they playing because they were friends of the conductor, doing it for course credits/as a part of a course, or something else?
. Was the ensemble a scratch ensemble, or a dedicated group?
. Was it a university project or outside project?
. How many people attended the Beethoven show, and was it mostly friends of the ensemble, or the public (or what was the rough ratio between the two)?

Aoout the Reich show:
. What is your budget, and do you have any experience marketing concerts?
. I couldn't tell from your description, but did you discuss this with him?
posted by womb of things to be and tomb of things that were at 3:43 PM on November 18, 2021

I've no specific experience with 18 Musicians, but quite a bit of experience providing sound support for various size classical/modern art music concerts. (And I've seen The Kronos Quartet perform his Different Trains and chatted with them about it.)

Kinda free-form thoughts off the top of my head:

It's definitely not a conventional classical/conducted piece

True, but there is a score (the written notations of who plays what parts), so there's something for the performers to work off of, they don't have to figure it out by ear or wing it.

And in general this piece should be well within the capabilities of "conventional" classically trained musicians, grad students, maybe even some of the better undergrad musicians. Especially if they have chamber music or small ensemble experience, which often don't use conductors. It's certainly not a conventional piece, but at this point it's almost 50 years old and very well known, and there's been a lot of adventurous music made since then. (This past summer I did a concert where one of the pieces used the squeaking produced by rubbing balloons as a core rhythmic element.) So it's not like they're gonna faint dead away when you put the score in front of them.

And when classical musicians are working off a score they often need much less rehearsal than you might think, even for a piece like this.

a USC grad student that he'd put together, and it was first rate. He's a friend of a friend

All of which makes me think that touching base with this person might be your first step - doing this under the umbrella of a college will give you access not only to musicians who can play the piece but the necessary finances and logistics and legal support for paying for the musicians and for the performance rights and the score and space to rehearse it in and a venue to perform it in and a way to promote it to the public.

IOW, the issue (as I see it) is far less that there's something extraordinarily complex or different about 18 Musicians, but that you want to put on a classical concert featuring a piece by a currently living composer - which is not really a DIY kinda project. Partnering with an organization that already does this (like a college, or an already existing music ensemble (The LA Chamber Music Company, maybe?) seems like the way to go, to me.
posted by soundguy99 at 3:59 PM on November 18, 2021 [2 favorites]

I believe if you start out by finding out which US based ensemble is already performing Reich's work this will be a better place to start rather than starting by putting together an ensemble...
A quick Google shows there is for example the Ensemble Signal.
I would start by contacting them ( there is a contact Email at the bottom of the page) and find out what their conditions are and work from there.

If you have no background in concert management, i suggest you partner with someone who does, eg a local to you music college, or music appreciation group, or other group who organises classical music events local in your region.
posted by 15L06 at 4:52 PM on November 18, 2021

I'm not exactly helping to answer about future performances ... but it was played here in LA, gorgeously, at the Colburn School in DTLA on December 17, 2018. It was mounted and performed by ECHOI, a chamber ensemble led by Jonathan Hepfer. Perhaps watching the filmed performance will help you clarify some of what's involved, at least in terms of scale and technical requirements. (Also to say, the fact that it happened so recently might impact your odds of finding an organizing body for it now.)
posted by mykescipark at 4:53 PM on November 18, 2021 [2 favorites]

Here is a page about "how to hire and orchestra" (UK, but still might be helpful in some ways). It also gives some ballpark cost estimates to thing about.

Besides talking to your acquaintance who organized the Beethoven symphony performance, to see if there is any interest in doing a similar project with Reich if some funding can be developed, the things that come to my mind:

- Contact area contemporary music performance groups, such as ECHOI mentioned by mykescipark upthread. Those type of organizations might be willing to program a work like this if they can find funders will to underwrite the costs.

- In our area we have groups that organize chamber music series and such. Again, contacting them to see if they would be interested in bringing in a group to perform this as part of their upcoming years' schedule could be fruitful. It would, at minimum, give you an idea if there is any interest at all and if there is, what the $$$ range would be to make it happen.

- Similarly, give symphony orchestras in your area a call. Maybe something like the LA Symphony but even more likely dozen(s) or so smaller & less renowned (and expense) orchestras that will be located within a hundred miles or so of you. The inquiry is the same - would they be interested in working with you to put together a performance of this work, if you supply the $$$ to make it happen. If so, what is their estimate of how much $$$ is required.

This is unlikely to be something that ends up on the symphony's regular concert series (though it could, especially if the size of donation supporting it is right and it fits into the organization's programming in other ways). But musicians associated with these type of groups are putting together various ensembles of various sizes and doing performances of all sorts all around the area all the time. They should be able to tell you who could help you figure out how much X musicians for a Y minute contemporary piece of Z minutes long might cost, and maybe even someone who could help organize it.
posted by flug at 3:29 AM on November 19, 2021 [3 favorites]

Putting together an orchestra for a Beethoven performance is not wildly difficult as a lot of people enjoy playing Beethoven, you just need to know enough people. If you're a music grad student you should know enough people, including people who have experience in setting up concerts.

If you're willing to spend lots of money on pros and not worried about ticket sales, then putting together a performance of Reich is probably not going to be wildly difficult in LA. Given the number of percussionists required, I would either start with an existing group of contemporary classical musicians, or with a percussionist you know has played contemporary or solo classical music (for example your USC friend of friend may be able to put you in touch with James Babor).

If you don't have that kind of money, then I imagine you're looking at putting together something semi-pro based around a student ensemble either as a concert, or just getting them to spend some time playing it through for you. Many of the local universities with conservatories and music grad degrees will have a student ensemble focusing on contemporary music. You probably need to approach the conductor/organiser.
posted by plonkee at 5:12 AM on November 19, 2021

Best answer: I don't think this is impossible, and if you really wanted to make it happen and were willing to spend a bunch of money on it, you could do it. Most classical concerts cost more to put on than they recoup in ticket sales, so you shouldn't expect to make your money back. And I do think that putting on a performance of "Music for 18 Musicians" is going to be significantly tougher than a Beethoven performance for a bunch of reasons.

First is instrumentation: "Music for 18 Musicians" calls for 4 pianos, 3 marimbas, 2 xylophones, and an unplugged vibraphone. Unlike a violin or a clarinet or a french horn, these are not usually "BYO" instruments. Someone's gonna have to rent, move, and tune at least two or three of those pianos (assuming there's already one or two good pianos in the hall where you're performing), and probably all of the big percussion instruments will need to be rented. This also increases your setup and breakdown time (and thus cost) for performances and rehearsals. (I suspect this is the big reason the piece is not performed more often.)

Second is a related personnel issue - in general, the musical ecosystem just contains a lot more string players than percussionists. It's LA so of course there are plenty of percussionists around, but you'd still likely need help to recruit the musicians. Your conducting student contact would be a good person to start with to ask about this stuff, like, "Hey, do you know anyone who loves minimalist music and wants more chances to perform it?"

Third is that the Reich is less familiar *and* more difficult in some ways, and will thus likely require more rehearsal time than a Beethoven symphony. Yes, it's performed on conventional instruments and there's a score, but it's not easy music and it requires a lot of focus and ensemble awareness. Like I once saw a performance of "Drumming" by a famous professional ensemble* where one guy just kept going past the end of the piece. Everyone else stopped (as indicated in the score) but this guy must have miscounted and he played like four beats alone and looked extremely embarrassed. With a Beethoven symphony you can reasonably expect that professional classical musicians could show up on the night with no rehearsal and give a competent if perhaps uninspired performance (it's already in their repertoire). This is less true of a Reich piece - it's just not in as many people's standard repertoire.

And fourth, you would need to pay licensing fees. This isn't a big deal, logistically (you request a quote from the publisher and they tell you how much to pay and rent you the scores) but it could be expensive.

Ideally I think you would find a musician or ensemble who's enthusiastic about the project and then provide some financial and practical support to them for recruiting and expenses.

Something else you could do if you're willing to spend the money and aren't that picky about the timing is to look into making a donation to a local modern music ensemble or university percussion department (or something along those lines) specifically to support a performance. My chorus did Handel's Israel In Egypt a few years ago because we received a restricted donation specifically to support a performance of Israel In Egypt. It took us a few years to get around to performing it, though, because we already had other concerts lined up.

* who shall remain nameless, but suffice it to say they do a lot of minimalist music and Reich specifically, and this was their second or third performance of the piece that weekend, so it wasn't like they were incompetent or hadn't rehearsed
posted by mskyle at 9:33 AM on November 19, 2021 [3 favorites]

Oh also, keep an eye on the publisher's page for more performance listings performance listings for "Music for 18 Musicians" from Boosey & Hawkes - they have a listing that I don't see on Reich's site (it's in Moscow, and quite possibly has been cancelled, so still no help to you, but maybe the next one will be somewhere more convenient!).
posted by mskyle at 10:44 AM on November 19, 2021

I played the first piano part on a performance of this piece about 10 years ago. I agree with a lot of mskyle’s comments above, especially about how this piece is considerably more difficult to organize than standard classical repertoire.

It’s critical that you have a few key individuals in the ensemble who understand how to perform a work like this. Although it does have a score, the transitions have to happen organically and the musicians need to understand how to communicate to execute those transitions. If you have a more experienced performer in each of the piano, percussion, winds, and voice sections that’s often enough to help guide other members who might not have experience with this repertoire.

Above all, this piece does need one central architect who can make decisions about the lengths of sections, determining responsibilities for cuing, and directing rehearsals. In my experience, this person was a percussionist because they tend to have more experience with this repertoire and because it’s such a percussion-heavy work.

I would reach out to the heads of percussion departments at music colleges in your area to ask for grad-level students who have experience with minimalist ensemble music so that you can start to build a core of your percussion section. One of these individuals might also be your overall architect. You may also need to contact the heads of vocal studies and winds at a few colleges as well to get your key performers in those areas. Percussionists sometimes play the piano parts because pianists are, in general, less equipped to deal with the rhythmic complexities in this piece.

You could likely then rely on this core group of people to recruit other performers from their networks to fill out the rest of the parts. Despite the title, this work is much easier to execute with more than 18 musicians. So you’ll want your architect to advise on how many performers they think are needed. The rest of your ensemble doesn’t need the same level of expertise with this type of repertoire as long as you have section leaders who can guide them.

This is such a powerful work to perform and experience live. I’m so excited that you want to do this!
posted by bkpiano at 7:14 AM on November 20, 2021 [4 favorites]

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