Composer Steve Reich's "Music for 18 Musicians" is a work of obsession: the systematic exploration of its harmonies, the layering of its jig-sawed rhythmic processes. Crazy meticulous stuff.

Yet Reich's masterpiece -- which received a rare performance Monday from the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players -- opens into a spacious flow. It is "immersive," to use a 21st century adjective. In fact, it's practically a multi-media experience: Pulsing explosions of light seem to wash over the listener, who is immersed, yes, in blended timbres and textures that seem tactile and fragrant, incredibly beautiful. It's filled with grooves that shimmy and shimmer. It's an exotic, hour-long summing up of Reich's influences of the era: modal jazz and gamelan, Ghanaian drumming and medieval polyphony. And it's as trippy as the drugs Reich may or may not have been taking around the time that the piece premiered at New York's Town Hall on April 24, 1976.

I love this piece to death, feel a long and deep attachment to it, even attended a 1976 pre-premiere performance of it by Reich's ensemble at a Soho loft. It was one of those "wow" experiences, and, 37 years later, I found myself nodding in agreement with Steven Schick, the Contemporary Music Players' artistic director, who discussed "Music for 18 Musicians" in a pre-concert talk at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. He called it "one of the great pieces of the 20th century."

It's become a common assessment that this is the ultimate work by Reich, now 76, whom many regard as the greatest living American composer -- and perhaps still the coolest. His pulsing and shimmering influence has spread through musical culture, from Mike Oldfield's "Tubular Bells" to Radiohead, Björk, Pat Metheny and even Stephen Sondheim.


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Monday, the conservatory's Concert Hall was packed with a hooting and hollering audience of Reich lovers of all ages. They got to hear a decent performance of "18": sometimes a little sagging, sometimes more than a little out of balance. (The sound mix wasn't great; were those singers plain timid or just under-amplified?)

But then there were those times when the ensemble would step through one of Reich's harmonic transitions and the effect would be of a window suddenly being wiped clean. It was like sunlight poured through the hall, amid a blissed-out conference of sleigh bells. The bass clarinets kept warbling their bullfrog-deep, pulsed melodies. And the soprano vocalists kept singing their goofy-lovely, repetitive rhythm-chants: dot daydle-dot, DOTtle, DOPE-dee-doo!

(How many times can you say that fast?)

The piece -- Reich's first big harmonic essay -- explores 11 chords, and the body of it is divided into 11 sections. Each is about five minutes long, exploring one of those chords as Reich keeps turning his kaleidoscope of melody and rhythm.

It was somewhere around the fifth or sixth section -- about half an hour into the performance -- that the group hit its stride, which it maintained for perhaps 20 minutes. Hard to say exactly what happened, but percussionist Christopher Froh, standing at one of numerous marimbas on stage, lifted his mallets in the air; some kind of signal. Watch this! He and pianist Kate Campell made eye contact, began bobbing their heads and instantly locked into some brand new rhythmic pattern in Reich's tapestry.

A moment or two later, Schick -- the tribal chief at center-stage, playing a vibraphone -- leaned into a four-note melody, letting each note hang in the air. It was another cue: boing!!! The entire group seemed to shoot up a magic elevator to a new staging ground: wild rhythm, like a modal-Latin, Pharoah Sanders jam session. Shaking a set of maracas, percussionist William Winant appeared transported, his tongue sticking out between his lips. All the while, the strings played long squeezed, unison notes, in and out, like a bellows; big healthy breaths of sound.

Mind you, all of this is notated and strictly organized, the work of a trained composer, who studied under Luciano Berio and Darius Milhaud at Mills College in Oakland during the early '60s. In his early years, Reich worked with the strict repetition of minimal materials and was dubbed one of the pioneering Minimalists. The term sticks even today, but is misleading, as "18" -- just one example in Reich's oeuvre -- assigns thousands of notes to each of its players, and can last 75 minutes, if every repeat in the score is taken.

"In what sense is that minimal?" Schick asked in his talk before the concert. Good question.

This maximal work was one of three on the program, titled "Confirmation." Reich used that word to describe his response to a trip he took to Ghana in 1970. It was a journey of study and discovery, confirming the musical path he was on.

His music grew more complex after returning; "Music for 18 Musicians," which explores African bell rhythms, is one example. Two others were on Monday's program.

It opened with "Clapping," from 1972, which Schick described as "almost like an etude" coming out of the African trip. He performed it with percussionists Froh, Winant and Daniel Kennedy.

They ambled onto the stage and set right into it: the sound of four men clapping. It was a percussion celebration, complex in its changing rhythmic patterns, and sounding like an elaborate (and localized) game of hambone, the African-American dance that involves slapping hands, arms, legs, chest and cheeks.

The program also featured "Electric Counterpoint," composed in 1987 as a commission for guitarist Pat Metheny. Typically, its performance involves a soloist who plays against a pre-recorded tape of himself or herself: as many as ten other guitar parts and two electric bass parts. Monday, the San Francisco Conservatory Guitar Ensemble -- 15 instrumentalists conducted by David Tanenbaum -- gave it a persuasive performance.

The quick-pulsing first movement (where Reich builds a bluesy riff from Central Africa into an eight-part canon) ebbed and flowed, its many parts sweeping up to form a pulsing (that word again) mosaic. (Metheny plays with similar ideas in his "The Way Up," from 2005.) The slow second movement (which works with loopy, noodling themes) felt spacey in a Grateful Dead kind of way. The third movement, with its fast-chiming motion and gorgeous little modulations, seemed to dose the audience with sunshine.

Contact Richard Scheinin at 408-920-5069, read his stories and reviews at www.mercurynews.com/richard-scheinin and follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/richardscheinin

San Francisco Contemporary Music Players,

Steven Schick, artistic director
Next program: 8 p.m. Feb. 25, Works by Eve Beglarian, Stuart Saunders Smith, Mark Applebaum, Paul Dresher, George Lewis
Where: Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
Tickets: $30 general, $25 seniors, $10 students; 415-392-4400, www.sfcmp.org