INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
The Guardian JUNE 27, 2009 - by Nicholas Wroe
A LIFE IN MUSIC: STEVE REICH
I thought, why not really write a rock piece? I'm over seventy now, but most of the rockers seem to be over sixty, so I'm qualified by age...
It took Steve Reich some time to appreciate that the near riot provoked by a performance of his work Four Organs at Carnegie Hall in 1973 was, on balance, good for his career. Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, had programmed the work for a Sunday afternoon subscription concert, which guaranteed attendance by "the most conservative audience of old ladies and romantic music lovers", Reich recalls. It soon dawned on the crowd that this apparently unchanging music really wasn't going to change. "It's very complicated to play," Reich explains. "The players have to count to stick together. Even though it was amplified, Michael had to scream 'one, two, three, four' at us because there was so much noise from the audience. There was some clapping, but mostly people were stamping on the floor and booing."
The New Yorker music writer Alex Ross has described it as "the last great musical scandal of the twentieth century". Reich says: "With hindsight, I realised Michael had been totally provocative and had set me up like a pair of loaded dice. I was as white as a sheet, and all he kept saying was 'this is history'. But he was right, and of course it's been played since and people seem to like it. Time makes things that were once outrageous, if not into standard warhorses, then at least standard parts of the repertoire."
Reich has been composing for more than forty years. In that time, he has seen the music he is most closely associated with - generally if restrictively defined as minimalism - seemingly emerge from nowhere to become one of the dominant musical forms of the age. From his early work with tape loops in the mid-1960s, his music has embraced classical and non-western traditions, popular culture, history, sacred texts and, more recently, video. This year, he won a Pulitzer prize for a new work, Double Sextet, and his latest piece, 2x5, premieres next week at the Manchester International Music festival on the same bill as Kraftwerk.
"Some of my players joked that the interlocking pianos of Double Sextet were so strong rhythmically that it was really a rock piece," Reich says. "So I thought, why not really write a rock piece? I'm over seventy now, but most of the rockers seem to be over sixty, so I'm qualified by age." He says the inspiration for 2x5 came from his love of the electric bass. "I use two electric basses playing a fast-moving and interlocking bassline. Do that pizzicato with classical basses and it would be mud. But with electric basses it's sharp and punchy, and hearing every one of those interlocking lines has a way of really propelling a group."
Ever since the Carnegie Hall riot, rock and pop musicians have associated themselves with his music. After a concert in the same year at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, "this long-haired guy wearing makeup came up and said, 'Hello, I'm Brian Eno.' Then David Bowie turned up at a concert in Berlin." But what is new, Reich says, is that he now works with classically trained musicians such as the New York ensemble Bang On A Can, who will premiere 2x5 under his direction, but who also understand and enjoy rock.
"The old joke used to be: 'How do you shut a guitar player up? Put some music in front of him.' Not with these guys. A more helpful distinction than classical and rock might be notated and non-notated music. Rock is a bit of a generic term now that doesn't mean too much, but it is generally non-notated music. Classical doesn't mean too much, either, but it is largely notated. Occasionally in the past, a tiny minority of classically trained students would play jazz. But now, if you are a classical guitarist you are almost certainly also a rock guitarist. That's something new. Many pianists, percussionists and even string players are bilingual: Mozart, Bartók, Stravinsky and Radiohead. They love and play all of the above, which in my case has a certain poetic justice. As a kid, I'd watch great jazz players at Birdland. Then people like Eno started listening to my music. And now I'm playing it with these kids who naturally move between classical and rock. Life doesn't always work out the way you'd like it to, but this seems to have a satisfying neatness."
Steve Reich was born in New York in 1936. His father was a lawyer and his mother a singer and lyricist. His parents divorced after only a year of marriage and his mother returned to her native Los Angeles. They were awarded joint custody, so every six months Reich would travel by train across the country with a nanny. At six, Reich settled in New York with his father, but had little interest in serious music until he was fourteen, when he was exposed to Stravinsky's The Rite Of Spring, Bach's fifth Brandenburg Concerto and Charlie Parker, Kenny Clarke and Miles Davis playing bebop. He started going to Birdland and began to play jazz drums. After a philosophy degree at Cornell, he studied at the Juilliard School before moving to Mills College in Oakland, where he studied with Luciano Berio.
It was at Juilliard in the early '60s that Reich first heard John Coltrane, "which had an enormous impact... Africa/Brass was in E for half an hour. How can you play in E for half an hour without getting bored? Through complexity of rhythm, melody and timbre."
This discovery later caused some tension with the great serialist Luciano Berio. "There was one way to write music back then. No harmony in the normal sense of the word, no melody in the normal sense of the word, no tapping your foot to a rhythm. So my interests were diametrically opposed to what I was getting at music school. But it was very similar to what I was getting from recordings of African drumming or Balinese gamelan music. And it was also in things like the Motown Junior Walker song Shotgun, where the bass line went on for a whole tune. You're waiting for the release and it never came. So for me, harmonic stasis was in the air."
Reich says he has respect for the musicianship of the serialist tradition, but little affection for the music, though he did have time for Berio - "a very funny and nice guy" - and was inspired by Berio's work on a piece involving reading extracts from Finnegans Wake. Reich had already been "fooling around" with tape loops and latched on to the idea "that speech could be an anchor that would link the work to the real world". In 1964, he had recorded a black preacher with "this incredible melodic voice" in Union Square in San Francisco. His words about Noah and the flood - "It's gonna rain" - seemed to counterpoint a world nearly consumed a few months before, albeit by fire not water, during the Cuban missile crisis.
"That was the emotional intensity of the piece [It's Gonna Rain]," Reich says. "The technical side was more fortuitous." He had set up two identical tapes on two machines, which, "by pure chance if you believe in pure chance, or by divine providence if not", were precisely aligned - though one machine ran slightly faster than the other. "So the voice came through the headphones in the centre of my head and then it moved out to my left ear, down my left shoulder and pretty soon it began to reverberate, and shake, and form these irrational rounds. And these series of patterns coming back into unison seemed to me more interesting than any relationship between the tapes. It was an accident, but if your antenna is up then you pick up on this stuff."
Reich moved back to New York in 1965, founded his own ensemble and released a second tape work, Come Out, featuring the voice of a black teenager wrongly accused of murder. Reich had been asked to produce a tape documentary by a civil rights lawyer, but while in sympathy with the cause, he says he wouldn't have made the piece if he hadn't discovered such a melodic voice. "If you want to do something political, you better keep your mind fixed on the quality of what you do artistically, or your political cause is going to be done a disservice. If the work survives, the subject matter will get a free ride. But there is no morality involved. Wagner's antisemitism equally gets a ride because it is attached to his musical genius."
Reich fell in with the visual arts crowd in lower Manhattan; many early performances were at art galleries. He says he "nearly got a hernia" helping Richard Serra move his vast metal sculptures, and received practical assistance from Sol LeWitt, who bought the score of Four Organs - so enabling Reich to afford to finish one of his most acclaimed works, Drumming.
Until the early '70s, Reich had virtually no relationship with the classical music world. But with the support of Michael Tilson Thomas and others, Reich, Philip Glass and Terry Riley began to be taken more seriously. Alex Ross has written how minimalism, in contrast to the history of classical composition as "a self-contained linguistic activity", was "open-ended, potentially limitless. It was a purely American art, free of modernist angst and inflected with pop optimism." "That might be right," says Reich, "but I wasn't thinking in those terms when working. Stravinsky said most composers are like animals grubbing around for roots to eat. When they find one they like, they stop there. If you set out to make a historical gesture you might get a hot five minutes, but you'll probably end up making nothing. Of course, it may turn out that what you do is a historical gesture, but your motive for doing it has to be more gut-level than that."
The composer Gavin Bryars played in the early British performances of Drumming at London's Hayward gallery in the early '70s. He says American minimalism "couldn't have been predicted, and was very attractive to a lot of young musicians. It wasn't the dominant post-Webern music of the period, and therefore felt more like outsider music and a breath of fresh air."
Bryars says Reich always had a clear sense of direction. "Terry Riley was a more free-ranging musician, and Glass began to repeat himself, but Steve had this rigorous programme of workshopping pieces in New York and then touring them... Through the '70s he moved step by step from tight progressions to more expansive works for larger ensembles such as Music For 18 Musicians, which had sections and harmonic movements and evolving orchestrations."
Music For 18 Musicians, released in 1978, was Reich's breakthrough work. His record company, Nonesuch, sent him out on the road to promote it like a rock album, and they were rewarded with it quickly selling a hundred thousand copies. Bob Hurwitz, Nonesuch president, says Reich's commercial success sent out a message: "One could write music that belonged to the moment and still have a public. For the generation that followed, it was an incredibly powerful statement, which I think changed the course of modern music to some degree."
But despite his growing commercial and critical success, Reich felt something missing in his life. He says he has "the religious gene" and tried Buddhist and transcendental meditation, yoga and breathing exercises "to calm down my high New York metabolism, and by the end I'd quit smoking without even trying." But in the mid-'70s, around the time he met his wife, the video artist Beryl Korot, he began to re-examine Judaism, which he had largely ignored as he grew up. "Theory led to practice and I changed my eating habits and began observing the Sabbath. I'm a workaholic and would work round the clock if I could, so this made a huge impression for the better."
Tehillim, a setting of Hebrew psalms, was the first of many works to explore his religious heritage, and was an early use of texts. Different Trains (1988), for string quartet and tapes, also broke new ground for him by being both autobiographical and by not adapting words to music, but rather adapting music to the rhythm of speech. The piece recalled those childhood train journeys across America, using recordings of trains and of the actual voices of the nanny who accompanied him and the porters who worked on the rails. "But this was the late '30s and early '40s," he points out. "In Europe, other Jewish children were on very different trains, but they weren't sitting round chatting to the guards. So the piece is autobiographical on one level, but also, there but for the grace of God go I." His use of recordings of Holocaust survivors prefigured later works he made with Korot, such as The Cave (1993), which features the words of Palestinians, Israelis and Americans in a musical documentary set at the site where Abraham is reputed to be buried, and Three Tales (2002), which draws on historical events such as the Hindenburg disaster and the cloning of Dolly the sheep.
Despite this apparent darkening of his palette, a new generation of pop musicians, this time from the world of dance music, have demonstrated admiration for his work by sampling and remixing his music - both with his permission and without (Reich magnanimously declined to sue the Orb for a blatant theft of a loop). "These are people I've never met in my life and who had not been born when I wrote It's Gonna Rain - and I do get a charge out of that," he says. Bryars says Reich's musical progressions have meant his minimalism has become less of an aesthetic and more of a style. "So people like John Adams, for instance, could appropriate bits of it and use them as a device when needed. People could give their own colouring to what he and the others started. Reich will last. No question."
The fact Reich now rarely plays with his own ensemble adds to the sense that his music has entered the canon. "I'm now played by groups who I don't know from a hole in the ground. Of course there are risks that they play badly, but an ensemble based in Japan or Riga can spread the work in a way I never could, and I learn new things about the pieces. Most of these kids have grown up with my music in the same way they've grown up with rock. And their blend of skills means they can not only play it well, but have the chops to really lay it down. When it works, there is a sense of both authority and love. It's all any composer could ask for."
REICH ON REICH
"Different Trains began because of my childhood four-day train trips across America between my divorced parents. There was also the American tradition of train songs: John Henry, Night Train, Soul Train, Chattanooga Choo Choo. I got recordings of American and European trains. Then I started making recordings of my childhood nanny, Virginia, who accompanied me, and Mr Davis, a retired Pullman Porter from that era. I then realised these were the same years that Hitler was taking over Europe and killing every Jew he could find. So I went to sound archives of holocaust survivors speaking about what happened to them - and the trains they rode. Then I set myself a rule: don't change the pitch of the voices by using a computer. This was an homage from the living to the dead and I had to preserve the integrity of all the voices. So every time there is a new speaker, there is a different tempo and a different key. And that constraint forced me into coming up with a completely different musical work, one that both looked back to my earliest work with speech tape-loops, and forward to what I would do in the future with video artist Beryl Korot. If someone had suggested that I write 'a piece about the Holocaust' I'd have said 'absolutely no' - it's too enormous to presume to deal with. But, just as I was using the actual voices of my nanny and the Pullman Porter talking about their lives, I could use the actual voices of Holocaust survivors talking about their lives as well. This created a piece where the documentary reality and the musical reality become one and the same. And if it works - and I believe it does - that's why."