March 3, 2024

Interlochen Students Join Grammy-winning Groups to Tackle Music Few Can

A Fest of Hypnotic Minimalist Music
By Ross Boissoneau | March 24, 2018

Two celebrated percussion groups and Interlochen Academy students will play some of the most demanding music in the classical canon — over and over and over again. The repeating and slowly mutating rhythms and motifs of classical composer Steve Reich will be presented at a two-night festival celebrating his music April 5 and 6.

But first, a brief lesson in musicology: Most music, whether classical or rock, jazz or hip-hop, is based around variations in melody, harmony, and dynamics. That’s not the case for Reich’s compositions. His music is about repetition and more repetition. The beauty is in the way the repeated phrases are shared and echoed among the various instruments while slowly coming together and moving apart.

While on the surface it might sound uninviting, even boring, Keith Aleo begs to differ. “I fell in love with it at 14 or 15,” said Aleo. “My dad bought me ‘Music for 18 Musicians [an early ’70s work of Reich’s based on a cycle of only 11 chords].’” Now, as percussion instructor at Interlochen, he’s bringing the music to local audiences and his students. 

He’s also bringing in special guests, the Grammy-winning musical groups Eighth Blackbird and Third Coast Percussion, both based in Chicago. “We’re really excited. We’ve done this a handful of times with Eighth Blackbird and other percussionists,” said Rob Dillon of Third Coast Percussion.

Aleo said the opportunity to expose both the audience and his students to the music and professional performers was one he couldn’t pass up. “Rory was taking proposals for projects,” said Aleo of Rory Baker, who puts together the Interlochen concert series as the executive director of Interlochen Presents. When Aleo proposed combining visiting professionals and students, Baker was hooked. It didn’t hurt that he, too, is a fan of Reich’s music.

Admittedly, Reich’s music, like that of his fellow minimalist composers such as John Adams and Philip Glass, is not for everyone. For example, “Music for 18 Musicians” — that’s both the name of the composition and the album — features interlocking pulses that slowly move into and out of phase with one another, utilizing voice, violin, pianos, reeds, and tuned percussion. Another of his compositions, “Sextet,” does much the same with a smaller ensemble — the sextet of the title. Either way, the effect is hypnotic.

Reich’s music is highly demanding for the players. While a musician who makes a mistake in a typical piece can fairly easily recover, if a performer misses a beat in this music it can be impossible to find their way back in. Indeed, one misstep can potentially cause the whole thing to come crashing down. “Over the years we’ve worked with a lot of musicians. Sometimes even very good ones are not equipped (for this),” said Dillon.

In addition, both “Drumming,” which the Academy students will be performing, and “Music for 18 Musicians,” which will be performed by the two professional groups, are over an hour long. Now imagine high school students being thrust into the midst of this exacting music. “It’s a massive undertaking. I don’t know I’ve heard of high schoolers attempting this,” said Dillon.

Aleo agreed, saying that his students are up for the challenge. “It’s quite a lot for kids to do it. I cannot believe how well they’re playing. They’ve risen to the occasion,” he said. 

Dillon and Matt Duvall of Eighth Blackbird have worked with Aleo and the Interlochen students. “I’m so amazed and it’s so much fun. It’s exciting to see younger folks playing this,” Dillon said.

Aleo said the key to the music is the way the phrases slowly mutate. “You can hear many things if you let your mind release. Certain notes resonate louder.” As the phrases slowly build, your mind may even hear notes or patterns that aren’t really there.

Dillon said it is important for students to be exposed to music such as this. “It’s a very different skill set than Bach or Tchaikovsky,” he said. And he agreed that audiences need to give it a chance as well. “It demands a certain type of listening. It plays with your head,” he said.

The Steve Reich Festival features the Arts Academy Percussion Ensemble on Thursday, April 5. The following night, the festival features Eighth Blackbird and Third Coast Percussion. Showtime is 7:30 each night, and tickets for each show are $18, $16 for seniors, $11 for youth. They are available at or by calling the Interlochen box office at 231.276.7800.



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