In conversation with Steve Reich
Steve Reich is one of the most important American composers of the past 40 years. With influences including Béla Bartók, Igor Stravinsky, John Coltrane, African drumming, Balinese Gamelan and Hebrew sacred music, Reich’s music has been a major inspiration for subsequent generations of musicians such as Brian Eno, Bang On a Can and Sunn0))). Often misdescribed as ‘minimalist’, Reich’s music is characterized by a complex integration of harmonic invention and rhythmic construction; from groundbreaking early works using multiple tape loops and a rigorous focus on process, through multimedia collaborations with his wife, the artist Beryl Korot, to his recent major compositions for voice and orchestra You Are (Variations) (2004) and Daniel Variations (premiered this autumn). On the occasion of ‘Steve Reich @ 70’, an international series of concerts celebrating the composer’s 70th birthday, Dan Fox and Mark Godfrey talk to him about his music and relationship to visual art.
Mark Godfrey: From the beginning of your practice there’s been a strong relationship between your music and the visual arts. You were aware of seriality in American art in the mid-1960s, as in the work of Sol LeWitt, for example. However, seriality meant something completely different in terms of the dominant European music of the time. Could you explain a little what the difference is between seriality in music and seriality in visual art?
Steve Reich: In serial music the 12-tone series of notes has no harmonic relationship between one note and another, and cannot really be heard as a pattern. Maybe Pierre Boulez could hear it, but this was something most musicians would have to take on faith, not something they could perceive as listeners. Visual serial art was very obviously repeating a given image or varying it in some way that one could walk into a room and immediately grasp it. You see Andy Warhol’s many Mona Lisas, and within five seconds you know you are looking at many Mona Lisas – you don’t have to be given a theory. In my music what I was striving for was something much more connected with American serial art. It was a rejection of European musical seriality.
MG In your 1968 essay ‘Music as a Gradual Process’ you wrote that, even when there are pared-down structures, there are enough ‘mysteries’ to satisfy any listener. LeWitt wrote about Conceptual artists as mystics, and many critics have referred to the unpredictable visual qualities of his work. Were you interested in those connections?
SR The piece of writing you’re referring to describes the music I had composed before I wrote the essay. It was not a manifesto for what I should do in the future. The mysteries I was referring to in music are overtones; when you strike a note, it is actually made up of many notes and you hear one. When you repeat that note, or a melodic pattern, you begin to hear these overtones and they become more apparent. There are other acoustic phenomena; within a repeating pattern you may hear part of it as a separate pattern divorced from the primary one, especially when played against itself. It’s only human that different people in the room might be focusing, let’s say, on the higher notes within the pattern, while another group of people would be focusing on the lower notes. This might be analogous to looking at a LeWitt grid of the period, first seeing it in terms of an overall geometric figure and then as you walk around it seeing all kinds of different patterns that shift as you move.
MG ‘Music as a Gradual Process’ was first published in the catalogue to the 1969 exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, entitled ‘Anti-Illusion: Procedures and Materials’, during which you performed Pendulum Music with Bruce Nauman, Richard Serra, James Tenney and Michael Snow. How did you come to be involved in the show and to collaborate with those artists?
SR I met Bruce for the first time through his former teacher, and my old friend, William Wylie, who I was visiting in Colorado in the summer of 1968, when I wrote the essay. There was a little tape-recorder in the room with a microphone attached to it, and I was swinging the microphone around – maybe because I was out West thinking about swinging lassoes around – and as it passed by the speaker, it began to feed back. The idea for Pendulum Music arrived in that room, while I was just fooling around, and while Bruce was there. He told me that he had been very influenced by my 1966 piece Come Out.
When I moved to New York in 1965, Richard Serra lived around the corner on Greenwich Street, literally about 150 feet away from where I lived on Duane Street. We were in pretty close contact. Sometimes he’d call me up and say, ‘A piece of lead rolled up. Another piece of lead flat. The roll is placed against the flat piece, propped up on the wall. What do you think?’ No ‘How are you?’ or ‘Let’s have dinner’, just ‘Bam!’ I would say, ‘Yeah, it sounds great, I want to come and see it.’ For Richard a piece of lead was a piece of lead – it wasn’t an allusion to the strength of building materials or pliability; it was simply something that was what it was, and its physicality would dictate what could be done with it. There was some analogy in that basically, once I’d composed a pattern, I started putting it through the phasing process and let it go through different canonic relationships.
I’m talking only about the really early pieces such as Piano Phase or Violin Phase (both 1967). There’s a real affinity in those works between what myself and Richard were doing. It was the connection that he and Nauman had to the visual arts that dragged me and Philip Glass and other musicians into the museums. Consequently all of my early concerts in New York were given not in concert halls but at museums. The very first performances of Drumming in 1971 were held in the theatre at the Museum of Modern Art. It hadn’t been used for music for about 15 years.
MG We’ve been talking about your relationship to the work of artists such as Nauman and Serra, rather than the Minimalism of Donald Judd, for instance. Why do you think people have called your work Minimalist, rather than using terms such as ‘process art’ or ‘serial art’?
SR Don’t ask me, that’s the job of music and art critics. I believe it was Michael Nyman who actually applied the word ‘minimal’ to my music and music like that, and it stuck. I have no idea why.
MG Come Out is based on the recording of Daniel Hamm, a young man beaten during a civil rights protest, talking about opening up a bruise to make the blood come out to show he’d been abused. Was there a relationship between this visual image of blood rushing out after a violent incident and the aural impact of your piece?
SR Not at all. I just took his words, and what got me was his speech melody and the way that it became more musical as it repeated and formed canons with itself. That was my exclusive concern. I never thought of it in terms of images of blood coming out. I think he was also exaggerating, I think he just squeezed the bump so that he could let enough blood to ensure he was taken to hospital.
MG A couple of years before you made the piece, Warhol had also been using images of race riots and subjecting them to repetition. Were those paintings in your mind when you made Come Out?
SR No. I think that at certain periods of history there are things in the air, and artists who have their antennae up will receive those ideas. LeWitt was making repetitive box structures, for instance. I was doing what I was doing, Terry Riley was working with similar ideas and Arvo Pärt in Europe was also exploring common territory. All these are peculiar to a certain period in history, and they represent some intuitive grasp of what’s going on. I could enumerate a number of musical phenomena from Africa or Bali, in John Coltrane’s jazz or in Motown that would relate to that, but all of these together are why my kind of music happened when it happened.
Dan Fox What about your relationship to other composers at the time? In 1964 you took part in the preparation and première of Terry Riley’s hugely influential composition In C. How did experiences such as that influence your thinking?
SR Terry Riley was influenced by LaMonte Young, and I was certainly influenced by Terry. For In C he wrote the piece without a pulse, and in the rehearsals it was hard to keep playing together. It was my suggestion that we put in a pulse – a series of high Cs on the piano which became part of the piece. I got a great deal out of the experience. Eventually I went back to the New York, had an influence on Philip Glass, and that’s ‘Minimalism 101’.
DF Was there much dialogue between you and your contemporaries in the USA and composers of a similar generation in the UK, such as Gavin Bryars or Cornelius Cardew?
SR When I was first touring with my ensemble in Europe, I couldn’t afford to bring over all the players necessary to perform Drumming. In 1971 I was on my way to Ghana to study African drumming. I stopped in London to get a cheap airline ticket that would fly me to Accra. I met Michael Nyman, and we became friends. At that point he was so unhappy with the European serial music around him in the UK that he was writing more music criticism than music. But he became very interested in my work and, when the time came to tour Drumming, volunteered to take part. He suggested that we rehearse in London and that he would get Cornelius Cardew, Gavin Bryars, Chris Hobbs and Michael Parsons among others to join my ensemble and then travel with us on to the continent. The first concert I ever gave in the UK was at the ICA in 1971, and the second major concert was at the Hayward Gallery during the first UK exhibition of Mark Rothko’s work in 1972.
DF How was your music received?
SR When you play the ICA and you’re unknown, who’s going to be in your audience? Originally my audiences were very small and were probably mostly made up of painters, sculptors, choreographers and other young artists. By the time I got to do Drumming, the audience had immediately jumped in number and diversity, and the reaction was enormously positive. I think people understood it in the UK and could see that this was finally an alternative to European serialism.
DF Your ensemble Steve Reich and Musicians has played a crucial part in the development of your music. How important is the act of performance for you as a composer?
SR It was very important early on and has become less so as I’ve got older. More and more people around the world are playing my music, and there’s less demand for my ensemble; people shy away from hiring us because we’re older, we’re more expensive. Look at the last few years of concerts, and you’ll see that there are between 150 and 200 concerts of my music around the world, and my ensemble probably does six or seven of them. We’re sort of like the original instruments, but we’re slowly fading out of the picture because so many people can do it themselves. As a composer that’s really satisfying because if, at the age of 70, nobody played my music, it would be a very sad commentary on what I’d done. On the other hand, it is very special when we can come to the Barbican in London or Carnegie Hall in New York and play any one of the older pieces that I’m involved in.
DF Was the development of some of your compositions more the result of a collaborative process than others?
SR None of them were collaborative at all, except in terms of occasional changes in instrumentation. When I wrote for Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ in 1973, there was one section that wasn’t working, and I felt it when we were rehearsing. I could see the faces of the musicians, and they looked a little bored and that wasn’t how they usually looked – this is real musical criticism, not what you read in the newspapers! I took it to heart, wrote another section and revised the piece.
Occasionally things like that would happen, but the rule was basically that I would write the music, we would rehearse it and then we would take a break and I would write some more. By the time I finished the piece our level of performance was already very high because we had rehearsed most of it already. A lot of new music when it’s played is being read by musicians who don’t know what they’re doing. People feel that lack of certainty coming from the players. When audiences heard us play, they could feel that the musicians had really mastered what they were playing. That communicates itself, and I think that was why having an ensemble was an essential part of my music becoming known.
DF How about the influence of non-Western musical traditions in your work – African drumming, Balinese Gamelan and Hebrew cantillation in particular. You once wrote that you weren’t interested in their sounds but rather their structure. What kinds of possibilities did these structures offer?
SR When I was a student with Luciano Berio in California in the 1960s, I read a book written in 1959 by A.M. Jones called Studies in African Music, which showed African drumming in notation. It was like seeing a totally different way of putting music together. There were repeating patterns, but lined up in such a way that their downbeats did not coincide. In other words, there would be no way on earth anybody could conduct such music because there were different downbeats for different players. This was totally different from anything in the West, and it encouraged me. Although my thinking process came out of working with tape-recorders, having seen what was going on in African music, and later travelling there, encouraged me that I was on a real path and that there was a musical tradition loosely connected with what I was doing.
In Balinese music you have interlocking repeating patterns – for instance, two people playing metallophones next to each other, both playing different patterns, but the two of them interlock. Sometimes it’s very rapid, and this is very similar to what I was doing. Also there are other musicians playing – say, a large gong only once every 64 beats. You would have the sense of music moving in drastically different tempos; some parts exceedingly fast and others extremely slow. If you listen to Octet (1979), besides the longer melodic lines, which actually come out of Hebrew cantillation, you also hear the strings moving slowly and the pianos moving very rapidly. It is this contrast in tempos that is at the heart of that piece and several
MG You’ve criticized music that imitates the sound of non-Western music as chinoiserie. I was struck by a correspondence between your position and an art-historical reading of what African sculpture meant to Picasso. In the early 1980s around the time of the ‘“Primitivism” in 20th Century Art’ exhibition at MoMA (1984), Picasso scholars began to reconsider what it was about African art that influenced him. The most convincing arguments suggested that he was more interested in the semiotic structures at work than its appearance. This seems to correlate with your position. Is that an argument that you’ve heard before?
SR I haven’t heard it before, but I totally agree. I came back from Africa with a sack full of African bells. I thought I would use them in my music, but when I came back to the piano, I could hear that these instruments weren’t corresponding exactly to notes on the piano scale. What was I going to do; take a metal file and force them into being the way I want them to be? What I did was simply use the bells I brought back to teach the music I learnt in Africa to musicians in my ensemble. Meanwhile, what I could learn was something that had nothing to do with those bells, but with how the patterns interlocked.
If you work with structures, you’re free to remain working with the sound that you grew up with. I grew up listening to the notes on a piano scale, not the notes that are found in Balinese tunings or on African bells. What I was getting were ways of thinking. In the pop field, for instance, the Beatles used the sitar on ‘Norwegian Wood’ (1965) and a few other tunes – is that their great moment? Hardly. What they contributed was their incredible gift of melodic invention, and bringing in new forms. The sitar in a rock band was a passing nod to an appreciation of Indian music.
MG You realized a couple of your works on video – Clapping Music (1972) and Music for Pieces of Wood (1973). What interested you about the medium?
SR All they comprise is me pointing the camera at the group, throwing the switch, joining the group and then playing the piece. The reason I chose those works is that watching orchestral music on television is usually a bore; the violin plays something and you see the violin, and it just seems like a guided tour, like going to a museum where you’ve got one of those things in your ear telling you what to look for. Clapping Music is just two people clapping; it’s very physical and it’s very short. Music for Pieces of Wood is very much the same thing – it’s five people and these tuned pieces of wood. What’s interesting on television in a conventional sense is personality, and in a piece like Clapping Music you can see the differences between the way I clap and the way Russell Hartenberger does, and how we change in the course of the piece. If you go to my website you can see Clapping Music.
MG Your partner, the artist Beryl Korot, made Dachau 1974 in 1974, and I was wondering if you see shared formal concerns between that and your 1988 piece Different Trains? How did you come to address the memory of the Holocaust in your own work?
SR I got a commission from Betty Freeman to write a piece for the Kronos Quartet in 1987. I also became aware at that time of the sampling keyboard. Beryl said to me, ‘Why don’t you use a sampler with Kronos, they’re just the ideal group to do this with?’ Great idea, but I had no idea what the content would be. My first idea was that I’d use the voice of Béla Bartók. Then I thought, wait a minute, do I want Béla Bartók sitting on my shoulder when I’m trying to write a string quartet? I mean, it’s hard enough as it is!
I then considered using the voice of Ludwig Wittgenstein. I wrote to people in the UK, and they said, ‘Look, the man died in 1951, there were barely any wire recorders around, he was a recluse and there are no recordings of him.’ Then somehow into my head popped these train rides I took as a child. My parents were divorced when I was one year old, and the court, rather unusually for the time, decided on divided custody. I would spend six months with my mother in Los Angeles and six months in New York with my father. I was taking four-day train trips across the USA through amazing cowboy country, experiences which stay with you for the rest of your life. I was thinking about all the musical associations we have with trains. There’s a whole line of American folk music that comes out of trains – soul train, night train – and I started asking myself what was going on while I was making these journeys in 1937, ’38 and ’39. What was going on was that Hitler was attempting to conquer the world. I remember seeing a very famous picture taken in Warsaw of a number of German officers with rifles, in which there’s a little kid, maybe seven years old, with his hands up. He’s got short pants and a little peddler’s cap on. He looks just like I did in the photograph of me as a boy on the cover of City Life (1995). Suddenly the light went on and I realized that if I’d been born in Rotterdam, Budapest or Brussels the same time as I was taking the train from New York to Los Angeles, I wouldn’t be talking to you today.
I thought the way to deal with the Holocaust is to simply go to an archive of survivors and use their speech melody along with the voice of my governess, Virginia, and a retired Pullman porter named Lawrence Davis. Their speech melody becomes my melody, as they speak, so I write. I think the piece succeeds because it sticks to the documentary reality. I am presenting them, not my exaggerated emotional response.
MG Did you think that not treating them was similar to the way that Beryl used the footage that she’d filmed at Dachau?
SR Dachau 1974 succeeds because she is treating something that is unbelievably emotional in an absolutely objective fashion. Her fidelity to the facts of the situation is what makes that such a powerful piece. It’s an attitude that we share.
MG The Cave, in 1993, was the first piece on which you collaborated. At what point did you decide to work together?
SR I was asked to write operas in the early 1980s by both the Frankfurt Opera and the Netherlands Opera. Many of my well-known contemporaries were doing precisely that at the time. I said thank you very much, but no. I don’t really feel close to the operatic form. So I’d hang up the phone and think I must be nuts, I’ve got this great opportunity. But I really didn’t have any ideas. Working on Different Trains, it occurred to me that I was using audio tape but what if I was to work with a video artist and you could see these people as they spoke, and also see musicians on stage, playing their speech melody? Hey, there’s my opera.
When Beryl exhibited Dachau, there were some people who would walk into the gallery, sit down and watch the whole thing, but the vast majority did not. The normal expectation in an art gallery is that you walk into a room, have a really intensive look for two and a half minutes and then you go on to the next gallery. The idea that you’re going to sit and watch a piece for 24 minutes is simply not part of visual art conventions. However, you could bring a multi-channel video into music theatre where the convention is that people are expecting to spend an evening watching for one, two or three hours. So the first thing we did was to make some experiments, and we were both very impressed with the result.
At the time Beryl was painting on hand-woven canvas and hadn’t done video in a while, but I asked whether she would consider collaborating on a piece. I remember we went to a neighbourhood coffee shop and had a business meeting. In about five minutes we both decided that if we did such a piece, it would have to be about the Cave of Me’arat HaMakhpela – the Cave of the Patriarchs. We always laugh because we figured nobody in the world would know what we were talking about! But it turned out to be an incredibly apt choice. First, Beryl needed a physical place to take her camera, and second, it was a classical story perfect for music theatre. When we were doing The Cave, the Gulf War was still in progress; headlines on the front page of the New York Times were saying ‘missiles in Abraham’s birth-place’. Basra had missiles installed in it, and Basra is the modern name for Ur, where Abraham came from. The topicality and ancient nature of the piece became invisibly welded together and remained that way.
DF Do new developments in music technology continue to play a large part in your work?
SR Different Trains was in 1988, and it was followed quickly by The Cave. This was followed in 1995 by City Life, for which we sampled city sounds. I then took a break and wrote Proverb the same year, because I thought if I see another sampler I’m going to get ill. Right after that we started the second part of Three Tales, which again put me back in the world of electronics. When you’re composing that way, you spend an enormous amount of time at the computer, fiddling with the samples. It’s a whole different way of working. When I had finished Three Tales in 2004, I really felt I needed a long period of just writing music for either voices or instruments, and I am still in that frame of mind. I’ve just finished Daniel Variations, which is a vocal piece. Right now I’m in acoustic phase. I’m interested in working with conventional instruments, and I haven’t felt a need to work with samples, but I imagine that that urge will return.
DF Daniel Variations, which will premiere in London, is about Daniel Pearl, the American journalist kidnapped and murdered in Pakistan in 2002. How did you come to create work in celebration of a life that was lost in such a violent way? Are any of your other recent works addressing a post-9/11 context?
SR No, that’s the only one that deals directly with it. In 2004 I went to Los Angeles to work with Los Angeles Master Chorale for the rehearsals of You Are (Variations). The director of the chorale, Terry Knowles, asked whether I would like to meet Judea Pearl, Daniel Pearl’s father. We met and immediately hit it off. I was amazed to find out that the foundation he’d set up in his son’s memory was basically dedicated to promoting religious understanding through journalism and music. Why? Daniel was a fiddle player. He loved to play bluegrass and jazz, and a lot of his contacts as a reporter were made through jamming with people. Music was an intrinsic part of his life and of what his parents were going to devote their memorial of him to. They asked if I’d be interested in writing a piece, and I said I’d be honoured. The Barbican had already mentioned that they’d like to commission me to write a piece for my ensemble, but I had no text. Judea Pearl gave me a book of Daniel’s writing. I chose four texts – two from the Book of Daniel and two from the words of Daniel Pearl – and that became the piece.
The first text from the Book of Daniel describes Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia, which is modern-day Iraq, having a horrible dream and wanting Daniel to interpret it. The second is from a hostage videotape of Pearl before he was murdered, in which he states ‘my name is Daniel Pearl, I’m a Jewish American from Encino, California’. I set ‘my name is Daniel Pearl’ to music, partly as an allusion to my 1967 piece My Name Is and also because Daniel Pearl is literally like a gem of a name. The third text goes back to the Book of Daniel, and it’s Daniel’s response to Nebuchadnezzar, in which he says ‘let the dream fall back on the dreaded’. The last text is a bit of a surprise; ‘I sure hope Gabriel likes my music when the day is done.’ When he was young, Pearl and a friend went on a camping trip. Round the campfire late at night, the friend asked ‘What do you think is going to happen to you after you die?’ Pearl replied, ‘Who knows, but I sure hope Gabriel likes my music.’ His friend had no idea what he was talking about. Cut to 2002, after his murder. The family asks the friend to go to Pearl’s apartment and pack up his stuff, as they would find that too difficult. In the apartment he finds a huge collection of old vinyl LPs, and one of them right at the front is by Stuff Smith, the black violinist, whom he had an enormous admiration for. The top tune there is ‘I Hope Gabriel Likes My Music’, written in 1936.
DF In 1970, in the programme notes for a concert at the Guggenheim, you wrote ’Some Optimistic Predictions (1970) about the Future of Music’ …
SR … That’s right. I wouldn’t do that today!
DF … and perhaps that answers my question, but I wondered whether you have any optimistic predictions about the future of music, now in 2006?
SR I think what I’ve learnt in the period between writing that essay and now is that the older I get, the more I realize I don’t know. I remember driving up to Vermont from New York and listening to the radio. When I hit the area around Amherst, Massachusetts, I heard a DJ mix on a lively local public radio station. It just faded into my radio and went on and on – I came in and went out of range, and it never stopped. I don’t know when it began, when it ended, or who did it, but it suggested a number of things about the way things are going. It was a very varied piece, sometimes it was in tempo with drums, sometimes much more electronic and atmospheric, occasionally it was something you might associate with new music, and sometimes it was purely pop.
I began thinking that there may be young musicians who have musical talent and read music very well, or don’t read it at all. They may not want to be associated with the academic environment and want to be out there in the real world. I can see the avant-garde pop world and the avant-garde new music world coming closer together. Maybe I was a forerunner of that. I’ve been remixed by that generation, and I see people younger than me like the Bang On a Can ensemble moving further in that direction. I could see a new area of which it would be hard to ask ‘Is this popular music?’ or ‘Is this classical music?’ The answer to that would be ‘as you like it’.
Steve Reich @ 70, an international series of concerts and events celebrating the composer’s 70th birthday, continues with Phases: the Music of Steve Reich at the Barbican, London, featuring Steve Reich & Musicians, London Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony Orchestra, London Sinfonietta, Kronos Quartet and Bang on a Can and including the world premiere of Daniel Variations for ensemble (28 September – 8 October). Other venues: Helsinki, The Sibelius Academy (30 September and 3 October), Graz Studio Percussion in Vienna (2 October), Graz (3 October), and Innsbruck (4 October). BAM Next Wave festival at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, New York (3 October – 4 November) will feature Steve Reich & Musicians, Kronos Quartet, and London Sinfonietta. The Whitney Museum will also show Three Tales and present a programme on 15 October featuring Alarm Will Sound, So Percussion, Prism Sax Quartet, and Tactus. In Freiburg (3 and 5 October), will be a Reich festival with Klaus Simon’s Holst-Sinfonietta and VOCALS 12/21. In Portugal and France (12–18 November) Steve Reich and Musicians will tour Daniel Variations and Music for 18 Musicians, including performances at Casa da Musica, Porto and Cité de la Musique, Paris. On 7 December 2006, the Amadinda percussion ensemble and the Uzme ensemble perform at Béla Bartók National Concert Hall, Budapest. In Los Angeles, 28 January 2007, the LA Master Chorale perform Daniel Variations at Disney Hall, and on 29 January the University of Southern California hosts a concert at Thornton School of Music. Nonesuch Records, Steve Reich’s label since 1985, released its second box set of his works, Phases: A Nonesuch Retrospective, on 26 September 2006.
Dan Fox and Mark Godfrey
Dan Fox is Associate Editor of frieze.
Mark Godfrey teaches at the Slade School of Art, University College, London and is writing a book, Abstraction and the Holocaust, for Yale University Press.
frieze is now accepting letters to the editors for possible publication at email@example.com.