Northern Illinois University

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Greg Beyer
Greg Beyer

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News Release

Contact: Mark McGowan, NIU Office of Public Affairs
(815) 753-9472

April 7, 2008

NIU New Music Ensemble to perform
Steve Reich’s ‘Music for 18 Musicians’

DeKalb — Greg Beyer wants to blow your mind.

Beyer, assistant professor of percussion studies in the Northern Illinois University School of Music and director of the NIU New Music Ensemble, is bringing a landmark work of 20th century American music to the stage of the Boutell Memorial Concert Hall.

“If people already know the piece then they know why they need to come – no explanation necessary,” Beyer says. “If they don’t know the piece … well, the first time I heard it, my life was forever changed.”

The work in question is Steve Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians,” a 70-minute “journey” that will conclude the debut performance of the NIU New Music Ensemble. The free concert begins at 8 p.m. Tuesday, April 8, with Reich’s “Electric Counterpoint,” a work for guitar choir featuring Nick Mizock.

Reich, a pianist and percussionist, is “one of the fathers of American minimalism,” Beyer says.

“ ‘Music for 18 Musicians’ is his undisputed masterpiece. It was a piece that really took him to a new level of public recognition as a composer because it received rave reviews from the SoHo News on its debut concert at Town Hall in 1976,” he says.

“Within two years, he had sold more than 100,000 copies – it was put out on the ECM record label – and was named one of the best pop albums of 1978, even though it’s a classical piece,” he adds. “It’s such an appealing work that it was making all heads stop and listen, be they classical musicians, popular musicians or jazz musicians. It borrows from all those genres in terms of its vocabulary in a manner that is eloquent and refined. It’s not a fusion work but an indisputably American work.”

Although Reich’s own ensemble performs this composition with 18 players, many of them are doubling on parts and scrambling around the stage from one instrument to another.

Beyer has assembled 19 musicians: four female vocalists (including colleague Diane Ragains), two clarinetists (who double on bass clarinet), a violinist, a cellist, seven percussionists (including himself) and four pianists (including colleague William Koehler).

The group has rehearsed this one piece all semester.

“It is challenging and eye-opening to the students who haven’t had exposure to this type of music. It’s definitely a style that needs to be taught. Students need to be trained how to perform it, and instrumentalists need to reconsider their typical roles. I’ve asked the string and wind players to think as if they were percussionists” Beyer says.

“It’s not your straight-forward chamber music piece,” he adds. “Not all the notes are written out; rather, players receive patterns in a few bars of music and then a set of written instructions. For example, ‘Play this pattern until this marimba three fades out. Watch for vibraphone cue.’ ”

Confusion was common in the beginning of the process but rehearsals have now become “a magical thing,” says Beyer, who instructed the string and wind players to “think as if they were percussionists.”

“Everyone gets it. Everyone is on,” he says. “I knew it would be a tough project to put together; not just another concert but a real journey the students would go through, and one we could go through together. Sure enough, that’s what’s happened.”

Audiences will find the harmonic language of “Music for 18 Musicians” something that is “instantly attractive,” he adds.

“It’s such a strong statement – an aesthetically sound work – and because of its scope, some 70 minutes in length, the piece feels more like a journey than a musical work,” Beyer says. “It is a piece to be experienced.”

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