The London Sinfonietta conclude a performance of Reich's Music for 18 MusiciansFlavio Ferrari

Marimba enters. Soon piano. A sparse and bright sound at a constant tempo offset by deep clarinet and voice. So begins Music for 18 Musicians, Steve Reich’s foundational minimalist work of 1976. This rhythm continues unabated for the initial cycle of the eleven chords around which the piece revolves, and goes on throughout the entire hour-long piece. A beat that lives beneath drifting sheets of marimba, xylophone, shaker, oboe, violin.

The piece proves to be a deeply absorbing and evocative listen that immediately brings to mind the bustling density of the city and, more specifically, Reich’s hometown of New York. Melodies interlock and run across each other like streets, strings and human voices rise and fall like buildings on the horizon, rhythmic patterns clatter among each other like pedestrians. Each listen unearths new details which previously went unnoticed. It all seems impossibly expansive, as if you could fall in and never find your way out again, even if you wanted to.

It’s my favourite piece of music. Whenever I listen to it, I find myself nodding incessantly back and forth, right hand splayed out tapping inaudible rhythms on the nearest surface. At a recent performance by the Colin Currie Group, a friend told me that I appeared to be in some kind of trance, anticipating the introduction of each new musical element or shift into the next movement. Every pattern and musical phrase seems now to be etched into my mind. If Music for 18 Musicians is a city then it’s one I know my way around. Nothing before or since has ever given me the same feeling of comfort and immersion.

“Melodies interlock and run across each other like streets, strings and human voices rise and fall like buildings on the horizon, rhythmic patterns clatter amongst each other like pedestrians”

Years ago, it was played to my class in school. When we were asked for our thoughts, the first of us to speak cried: “But it’s so repetitive!” They weren’t wrong. That's the aspect of the piece which strikes you most immediately. But despite this, the repetition seems tranquil rather than laborious, more akin to the steady sounds of nature than mechanistic drive. Each movement sees new harmony and texture: from the melancholic, drifting vocals and scattered percussion of the third to the jagged piano lines and bold strings of the ninth. As with all of Reich’s music, from his early work with tape-loops and phasing to more recent percussion pieces, repetition is not merely a feature of the music but a vital conceptual component. The focus is on the interplay and dynamics between continuity and change. Without each of these things, the piece would amount to little.

As someone on the autistic spectrum, I’m no stranger to repetition. In fact, it’s fundamental to my life: I do familiar things in familiar ways, go to familiar places, speak to familiar people. When this structure is disrupted it creates confusion and panic and it can stop me from being able to carry out basic tasks or even speak to people. This might all seem very draconian to neurotypicals (or non-autistics), but I couldn’t live happily without it. What’s more, I also experience repetition through stimming: simple, repetitive actions used to manage strong emotions like stress and anxiety, or overwhelming sensory information. For me this can range from toying with a pen to playing with clothing labels, but in each case it brings a sense of relief and clarity.

I love repetition and structure and maybe that’s also why I love Music for 18 Musicians. It’s guided by a strict sense of regularity and order that fits how I seem to think and, at the same time, it’s a piece that is stuffed with human flourishes, impassioned melodies and affecting beauty. This is not intellectual riffraff dominated by theory, but music that makes you feel. My overall experience of the world is one that at times feels dominated by change – change that is inescapable and about which I can do very little.

Every day brings new and equally bewildering places and people and situations to be navigated. Despite being a mere piece of music, Music for 18 Musicians helps with all of this: it calms me, helps me concentrate and focus, and makes me happy when little else might. Even when writing this, it occurred to me that the head-nodding and desk-tapping it seems to induce is a case of stimming. Through its unwavering pulse, it supplies a predictability that is absent from the real world and gives me the knowledge that for its hour-long running time, in at least in some respects, everything will be the same as it ever was.

Of course, none of this should be taken as a statement on autism as a condition. My love of routine and consistency translates into a love for this piece, but I could just as easily find others on the spectrum who find it laborious and dull. So what’s the point? It could be that repetition is a feature of music that autistic people find especially appealing. But more importantly, the emotional effects of music and the responses that music can induce are of great interest to us all. The perspectives of neurodiverse individuals could prove invaluable and broaden our understanding of what music means for everyone

Sponsored links