Music for 18 Musicians in Glasgow & Birmingham

Serge Vuille was our percussionist at the very first London Sinfonietta Academy in July 2009, and since then he’s graduated and regularly joins the ensemble for our landmark events and touring projects.  This weekend, he performs master minimalist Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians for the first time, and told us a bit about how rehearsals are going…

Wednesday 9th February

The good thing about Henry Wood Hall (a rehearsal space in Borough) is that they serve a brilliant cooked breakfast within the building. So on Wednesday morning, once all the instruments were in the right place, I went down to the ‘crypt’ in the basement and ordered a double egg on toast with tea to make sure I would have plenty of energy for the rehearsal. I have never played Music for 18 Musicians, but I know the piece and know that energy will be required.

I am the only one in the piano-percussion section who has never played this piece, and when the rehearsal starts I still don’t know exactly which part I am going to play. Although there is a music part on each stand in the room, this piece is rehearsed following more of an ‘oral tradition’. The players change from one instrument to the other (including pianists playing marimba, singers and percussionists playing piano), and share the music. So David Hockings (Principal percussion) and Micaela Haslam (director of Synergy Vocals) introduce the piece to me with much expertise and enthusiasm as we go along. I like this way of working, where experience is the main source of information, and printed music acts more like a reminder.

It takes a few moments for me to find the right feel to the music: relaxed but right on top of the beat. It feels safe anyway to be surrounded by great musicians who know exactly what they are doing. I am fortunately familiar with Steve Reich’s music, and after a little while it starts to feel comfortable. I can then concentrate on communicating with the other players, and enjoy the waves and turns of the music.


Thursday 10th February

The singers join us today, but the violinist is ill (he’ll catch up in the afternoon)… This means we can’t run the whole piece as he cues both the beginning and the end, but we can deal with it as this music never really starts or stops, it mainly evolves. There is no conductor and no bars to count, but there are cues and signs from one player to another. During rehearsals, when we take up from a certain place, there isn’t a ‘1-2-3-go’, but one of the players starts (probably a melodic part on the marimba) and the others just come in in no particular order. The two ‘cue masters’, showing the big changes between parts are the vibraphone (Tim Palmer) and first clarinet (Tim Lines).

My part consists mainly in playing repeated chords on all the beats uninterruptedly during chunks of about 10 minutes and changing chord for each section. I love it. It is the backbone of the music (shared between several musician through the piece), and maybe the best position to listen and enjoy the rest (but not too much, because the slightest drop in concentration results in a very subtle but noticeable wobble in time). Just opposite to me is Olly Lowe, playing upbeats, right between my downbeats. We studied together at the Royal College of Music and it is great to play with him again ‘in the real world’. It is the weirdest impression to have this constant pulse of quavers going between the two of us while it is very hard for the ear to distinguish what I am or he is playing. It is sometimes better not to listen too carefully.

I was in the audience for the London Sinfonietta’s last performance of Music for 18 Musicians at Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall last year and loved it. One of the great things about a concert performance of this piece is that the listener can focus on many different layers and aspects of the music: the constant pulse, the melodies, the changes in texture, the waves, the visual aspects, the sounds coming from the ground, those flying just under the ceiling, the attack of the sticks on the marimba, or oppositely only the resonance. Steve Reich’s music can sound very simple, but it is extremely rich, and offers a very complete concert experience. I can’t wait to perform Music for 18 Musicians for the first time in Glasgow, and even more so with the London Sinfonietta.

Serge Vuille

Serge is one of the London Sinfonietta’s percussionists for the tour of  Adès’s In Seven Days alongside Reich’s iconic Music for 18 Musicians.

Click here to watch our short film about Music for 18 Musicians, which includes exclusive interview footage with Steve Reich.

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