The most relaxing music I know — my musical go-to place for when the world is too much with me — is “Music for 18 Musicians,” the warhorse of Classical Minimalism composed by Steve Reich in 1976. Some of you may find this improbable. Those who think of Minimalism as a four-hour dial tone by Philip Glass, for example. Or my sister, for whom Reich’s piece is the equivalent of two Styrofoam blocks rubbed together and who has to leave the room — the house, the state — whenever I put it on.
But here’s the trick: If the first time you listen to this hourlong progression of pulsing musical cells, you actually listen to it, you may go around the bend like my sister. The piece is constantly changing, but slowly, like a gradually revolving sphere. (It may help to think of it as sonic sculpture rather than music, in fact.)
Instead, put “Music for 18 Musicians” on — any recorded version, there are many — and don’t listen to it. Do something else. Light housework. Meal prep. Balance your checkbook. As background, this ensemble work for strings, reeds, pianos, mallet instruments, and the human voice is a shimmering latticework on which to hang your thoughts. It’s left-brain music that frees up the right: I’ve written articles and entire books to “18 Musicians,” and I don’t have to give it attention when it’s providing me focus. So by the time you do choose to actively listen, Reich’s masterpiece may feel familiar and welcome — a chiming refuge from the world’s relentless forward momentum.