Donal Dineen’s Sunken Treasure: Music for 18 Machines

This week’s column isn’t just about the sparkling jewel in Steve Reich’s crown that is Music for 18 Musicians, but about the experience of hearing it reimagined as Music for 18 Machines on the hallowed ground of St Patrick’s Cathedral during this year’s St Patrick’s weekend festivities in Dublin. A church of sound is one I’d very happily subscribe to. There was a touch of magic in its staging at St Patrick’s. Reich’s audacious exploration of musical pattern took on new meaning and reached new heights on the occasion. Who knew? The roar of a jet plane could have gone unnoticed during this one. In a cathedral built for an entirely different type of sound, it was an exhilarating and uplifting experience. Church visits are nearly always conducted in silence.
On this holy ground once more, an unforgettable fire. It was a night when all the elements conspired to mesmerise. Given the gargantuan loft of the ceiling, quieter aspects of the piece assumed new power. Dreamy and hypnotic
The music, in which high-register acoustic sound (the original ensemble comprises marimbas, xylophone, metalliphone, and women’s voices) evolve harmonically toward themselves, is dreamy and deeply hypnotic. Souls were cleansed and sins erased. All sorts of sub-plots were triggered by the soundwaves. Bones of both the living and the dead rattled. An hour flew by. The woodwind parts took on the consistency of waves. I don’t have the vocabulary to explain either the intricacies of the piece nor the reasons why I found Simon Cullen (Synth Eastwood) and his collaborators Neil O’Connor, Glenn Keating and Liam Gaffney’s interpretation of the piece so thrilling. There weren’t any constant hypnotic pulses to stimulate the brain in those days. Ancient and modern ritual collided. If the roof had lifted to reveal the Aurora Borealis in full glory, I would not have blinked. The voices were haunting and ghostly. It was immense. The sheer force of it made me imagine the floor was vibrating. I couldn’t help thinking of how slowly time passed in the silent churches I spent my youth. The all-knowing god we grew up with should have come clean about the kind of sub-bass a Funktion One sound system can generate. Had he done so I would have signed up for life.