Keep on working, it’ll get you through anything – interview with Steve Reich

Steve Reich photographed by ©Jay Blakesberg

On Sunday, 3 October, American composer Steve Reich turns 85. One of the most original and influental figures in contemporary music, Reich’s works have had a huge impact across genres ever since the mid-sixties. Several seminal pieces, such as It’s Gonna Rain (1965), Drumming (1970-71), Music for 18 Musicans (1974-76), Different Trains (1988), Three Tales (1997-2002) and WTC 9/11 (2010) have become deeply etched into our cultural soundtrack, contributing to the very foundations of our 21st century musical thinking.

Despite of his stature, when in conversation, like in the one we had over Zoom a couple of months ago for this feature, Reich is the most down-to-earth, humble and appreciative person one could possibly imagine. Ever articulate and enthusiastic, his acute observations are combined with reflection and wit, accompanied by heartfelt laughter and joie de vivre.

Like the rest of us, the pandemic era has obviously had an impact on Reich’s life as well, at least on some levels. As John Adams aptly put it in our recent talk, composing during lockdown became, essentially, an existential activity for him. Undoubtedly, the same applied to many of his colleagues. But how was it with Reich?

”Yeah, well, I think composing is always an existential activity! That’s what I do, because that’s what I love to do. While I was composing, in the early days of the pandemic, we, my wife Beryl Korot and I, were definitely isolated. We were in Los Angeles at the time, and we weren’t leading a very active social life there; we were there because our son was there. The pandemic didn’t make a huge difference in lifestyle then. Now we’re back at home, 50 miles north of New York City, which is again very isolated, to begin with. So, it hasn’t been a personal, complete change of lifestyle, no. My advice to everybody has been: just keep on working, it’ll get you through anything.

But of course, once you’d finish composing, there were no musicians, no concert opportunities, no performances. So that’s where there’s been a huge, huge difference. Not only do I compose, I live on the performances; that’s how I survive and pay the groceries and all other expenses. So, that’s been a big setback, and a big problem, when you think about your savings and that kind of things.

This is probably the most powerful experience to happen to the planet since 1917, when there was the war and then there was a huge epidemic, with many more deaths. I’m eighty four years old, and there is no other experience, I can think of, in my lifetime, where everybody was equally involved.”

Over the past couple of months, concert life finally has entered a period of reopenings. As performances resume, more or less globally, Reich’s concert calendar is now marked with a whole bunch of concerts.

”I finished a piece called Traveler’s Prayer recently. It was supposed to be premiered in America and in Europe and in Japan, all in this fall. It will happen in London, in Paris, in Hamburg and in Amsterdam in this fall. It’ll happen in Tokyo in January, but it will not happen here, in Carnegie Hall and in California, until fall of 2022.”

Commissioned by NTR ZaterdagMatinee, Southbank Centre, Carnegie Hall, Philharmonie de Paris, Elbphilharmonie Hamburg, Cal Performances and Tokyo Opera City Cultural Foundation, Traveler’s Prayer will be premiered by Colin Currie Group and Synergy Vocals at the Concertgebouw Amsterdam on Saturday 16 October. In terms of rhythm and counterpoint, the sixteen-minute piece ventures into sonic realms upresedented in Reich’s output.

”In music history, you could say, it is closer to Josquin des Prez than Igor Stravinsky, and that’s completely new thing to me. It is scored for two tenors, two sopranos, two string quartets, two vibraphones, which are in minor role, and one piano, which is very important, it’s like an anchor on the boat.

There is a Traveler’s Prayer, I guess, in many religions. In Judaism, it is in the Prayer Book, and you say it, when you get on an aeroplane, especially if you are to fly over the water. I did not use that text. There are other associated texts with it that I did use, some of which appear in the last movement of WTC 9/11. The difference that anybody will notice in this piece right away, is that while it is mostly in 2/4, there is no articulated pulse. You can count it, but it doesn’t get in your body, as you listen to it.

It also uses techniques I’ve known about all my life, but I’ve never used them; retrograde, inversion, retrograde inversion. I wanted to stay put harmonically; the whole first eight minutes or so is in one flat. But I also wanted harmonic variety. And I found, if I make these very free canons, if the first voice is in the original notes, but the second voice is in inversion, the intervallic harmony changes, and there’s a feeling of variety. But for me, it was a complete surprise; I found myself doing things that I’ve never done before. And when you’re 84, that’s nice!

It’s probably my most contemplative piece. I mean who’s to say, but it is very continuous the whole fifteen minutes. One of the singers, Micaela Haslam, whom I’ve been working with for the past twenty five years, said that the piece hovers, like a hovercraft. So, it’s different. ”

Although completed in April 2020, during the first months of the pandemic, Traveler’s Prayer was not, at least initially, conceived as a Covid meditation.

”I started the piece, because I was 83 years old. It is definitely an older person’s piece, in the manner of, let’s say, Requiem Canticles, which was written by Stravinsky for his own funeral; fortunately for him, he wrote it a little too soon. Now, while I was working on it, here comes the virus, and then suddenly there is an avalanche of death and illness. So then, it took another colour or meaning, so to speak, that I had had no reason to start with. While I didn’t really change the way I was proceeding musically, the circumstances did change what this piece was about, whether I liked it or not.”

Steve Reich in conversation with Colin Currie. © Colin Currie Group

On the premiere performances tour, Traveler’s Prayer will appear in programmes that also are to include Tehillim (1981), one of Reich’s most luminous scores. An exquisite psalm-setting worthy of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms (1930/1948), Tehillim marked a quantum leap in Reich’s output, in its day, breaking into new grounds of rhythmic construction and vocal writing.

Tehillim begins a whole new world of rhythmic structure. I mean, all the pieces before it, let’s say from Piano Phase to Music for 18 Musicians, were in kind of all-purpose-three; 3/2, 6/4, 12/8, ambiguously going between those meters. Basically. it was either four groups of three or three groups of four, applied in different ways in different pieces.

With Tehillim, I wanted to set some of the Psalms, because I had come re-involved in Judaism, which I left early on, because I was never educated in it, I was brought up Reform. However, ignorance it not bliss, ignorance is ignorance. Now, the Psalms, the Five Books of Moses, the Torah, have a way of being sung in the synagogue that is very ancient; it’s called cantillation. Tehillim has nothing to do with that. Everybody says it does, but it doesn’t. Traveler’s Prayer has everything to do with it; it is quite literally used there.

For Tehillim, I was simply choosing the texts that I felt I could say to anyone, Jewish or non-Jewish. And I was saying the Hebrew words, which I was just learning, over and over again, and like composers have done for hundreds of years, with a melody applied to them. So this melody pops into my head, and the same time comes this rhythm, 1-2, 1-2-3, 1-2, 1-2-3…, and I think, what is that?

Well, what that is, is my mind going down layers of musical memory, back to Béla Bartók Fourth and Fifth Quartet and to Bulgarian rhythms, with these constantly changing meters, and to the last part of The Rite of Spring, with constantly changing meters. I wasn’t thinking about them, in other words, they were coming up unbidden, unasked; here we are, whether you like it or not! And that’s the way we all are. We have musical memories, and they play a part in what we do. Sometimes it’s clear, sometimes it just comes up, seemingly out of nowhere.

And I felt, well, that’s the first movement, let’s see what happens. But it refused to go away! It was running the show, not me. So it persisted throughout the whole piece. And it was exciting, because I was in a whole new vocabulary and I was using it to set a text. While there are singers in Music for 18 Musicians and Drumming, they’re singing wordless vocalise à la Ella Fitzgrald, which is great, but it is not singing words. So in Tehillim, it is actually a normal way of setting a text, in a completely new musical context, for me. In other words, it is one step back and one step forward. Something very old and something, personally, very new.

Tehillim is not only, I think, a very, very successful piece (the Hallelujah is one of the greatest things I have ever done), but it also proved that changing meters, as way of having a structure for a piece of mine, worked. All-purpose-three, let’s say, persisted, and you find it in other pieces. In The Desert Music, there are parts of it that are all-purpose-three and other movements that are definitely in the changing meters. In other words, it became part of my musical vocabulary. Tehillim was saying, OK, now you’ve got something new to work with, and it became basic resource. Sometimes all of a piece would be that, sometimes just some movements would be.

It is definitely going back into Western music. In other words, for me and, I think, for a lot of people, when you have a new idea, you may wanna to present it very clearly, very paired down, just as in Piano Phase and It’s Gonna Rain; one pattern against itself, unison canon, and just concentrate on that phasing process. Then in Drumming, it’s phasing process plus resulting patterns that you hear from interlocking of these instruments.

I would say, the last movement of Drumming is a step, because the first movement is drums against drums, the second is marimbas against marimbas, the third glockenspiels against glockenspiels, and then everybody together in the final movement, which is the normal Western way of writing music. I had been doing something very specialized, and suddenly, in the end of Drumming, I was obliged, I felt, to deal with what is more normal. And that led to Music for Mallet Instruments, Voice and Organ, which starts off with a completely mixed ensemble and much richer harmonic sound, which, in turn, led to Music for 18 Musicians. Then in Tehillim, the voices really sing words.”

In addition to its changing meters and setting a text, one of the striking features of Tehillim is that, for the first time in the Reich oeuvre, it features an actual slow movement.

”There is a funny story behind that, involving Peter Eötvös, who is a wonderful musician, a wonderful conductor and a wonderful composer. He was very supportive of me, when I worked with the Ensemble InterContemporain, which Boulez founded and Eötvös then conducted.

He and I got along. We were going from Paris to Stuttgart, so that he could conduct the first two movements of Tehillim there, because it was co-commissioned by the Südischer Rundfunk; a partial concert of a work-in-progress. We were driving down, he could barely speak English, I could barely speak French or German, but somehow we managed. And then he kinda says to me, so you go on in the same tempo? And he gives me a smile. And when he said that, I was, oh, you’re right, I have to change tempo, and I felt, I had to write a slow movement. So, Peter Eötvös forced me to write a slow movement! And then return to the tempo in the last movement.

We were talking about Stravinsky and Bartók earlier, but here’s Peter Eötvös, driving in a car, and he turns a switch in me; better write a slow movement!”

Alongside all the musical discoveries that came with Traveler’s Prayer, another recent piece, Music for Ensemble and Orchestra (2018), marked Reich’s rediscovery of orchestral writing, three decades after his previous foray to the genre, The Four Sections (1987). Commissioned by Los Angeles Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, London Symphony Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony, Sydney Symphony Orchestra and Baltic Sea Philharmonic, Music for Ensemble and Orchestra was a result of several innate and external impulses.

”There’s certainly the reality that I was older, and there was obviously interest in orchestras to commission me. The whole process started, when we, me and my wife, were in LA, visiting our son. I went to hear the LA Phil. Now, I don’t even remember what the concert was, but I was looking at the stage, the normal orchestral orchestral setup; 1st violins, 2nd violins, violas and cellos (or cellos and violas) in a semicircle. The front line of players are the principals, so they’re the people, if there’s a solo in an orchestral piece, they’re going to play it. They’re also seated so they can hear each other. They can play chamber music, because that’s how you set up to do it. And right in back of them are the principal winds, who have the same thing. So when you have the opening of The Rite of Spring, the first bassoon plays that. So they’re all used to playing more intricate detail, like the whole first section of The Rite of Spring, which is, in fact, very soloistic.

So I began thinking. Back then, I was working on a piece called Runner, which is for nineteen musicians; two flutes, two clarinets, two oboes, double string quartet, these pairs, and percussion, two pianos and conductor. I was looking at the stage setup. If I’d put in the two vibes right in back of the winds and the two pianos over one side and the other, there’s Runner. So, what should do I do with the rest of the players?

Then I began thinking about one of my favorite pieces that I discovered when I was fourteen years old, the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto. So, the whole idea of concerto grosso is that you don’t have concerto for violin, you have concerto for flute and harpsichord and violin, and they switch places, sometimes they’re in the orchestra, sometimes they’re the soloist; the harpsichord solo is fantastic, but mostly it’s playing with the ripieno.

So, that idea began to grow. The way I’d could get the results that I want from an orchestra, would be to write the intricate, detailed music that I like to write for the ensemble that is the first chair winds and stings that’s just there sitting, waiting for me to ask them to do it! In that way, you don’t have to re-seat them and go to some complicated thing. If you want to write a piece for orchestra and you have to re-seat them, it’s hasta la vista! They’ll play it once every four or five years. But I wanted to write something that would be practical. And that was, really, by nature practical, because the people were really where I wanted them to be.

I felt, like, a-ha, I’ve finally got a way to write for the orchestra, which reflects the idea of concerto grosso and which gives me the kind of results that I’ve always wanted to have, but which are not going to happen, if you have a full string section and multiple woodwinds on each part. Instead, I needed the soloists, and then I could have much simpler orchestral string parts, basically to fill out the harmony, alongside four trumpets, because I just wanted to have that.

And you also have a very good rehearsal situation, because the you can do a sectional with the people who are used to handle the solos, and then you can bring in the strings and the trumpets and they can read it and play just fine. And in fact that’s exactly what happened in Los Angeles, where it was first done with Susanna Mälkki. We had never worked together. I did not know what she knew or didn’t know about my music, but because the piece was what it was, it began to work right away. And the musicians got the feel, because the musicians who had to do that, were getting a feel for all kinds of stuff, and a lot of them did know my music. And that has been the case with the other orchestras as well.”

In addition to their shared genesis, Music for Ensemble and Orchestra and Runner are based on identical, five movement overall structure.

”In both pieces, the tempo is quarter note equals 100 throughout, it never changes. But the first and last movements are written in sixteenth notes, second and fourth in eighths, and the central movement is based on Ghanaian bell pattern rhythm, quarters (and dotted quarters). Sometimes, I joke about it and call them Runner One and Runner Two. I remember discussing this with Nico Muhly, the composer, and asking if he ever writes two pieces that are sort of the same, and he said, yeah, but the second one is always no good! I was in the middle of writing the orchestra piece and I said, thanks a lot!

Now, some people will gonna like Music for Ensemble and Orchestra the more, some gonna like Runner more. As for myself, I am a very uncompromising judge of my own music; I don’t think everything I did is great. But these pieces both work. And that seemed to be the feeling of the musicians as well. You could look at the musicians performing, and there’s your real music criticism. You look at their faces and you look at their body movements and their energy. If they’re not really in it, you’ve failed.

Why do pieces get played again? Because the musicians want to play them, and the audiences want to hear them. If you have that, you’ve succeeded. If you don’t you’ve failed. It’s that simple. I don’t care what the newspaper says.”

The two pieces are expected to appear back to back on a forthcoming recording as well.

Music for Ensemble and Orchestra has already been very well recorded by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Nowadays, when recording studios are just nonexistent or too expensive, they recorded each of the four performances, as well as the rehearsals. They had a guy, who is resident there, and he close-miked all the musicians in-performance. So you have a studio situation! Later, when it was all over, I was in New York and he was in California, and we would go back and forth, editing and mixing it on my computer. The same thing will happen with Runner this fall, again with the LA Phil and again with Susanna Mälkki. So the album should be out in 2022.”

Speaking of recordings, in the seventies and the early eighties, Reich’s ground-breaking album releases for Deutsche Grammophon and ECM were all performed by his own ensemble, Steve Reich and Musicians; a group that went on to record several albums on Nonesuch as well. However, as years went by, other groups became increasingly involved in performing and recording the composer’s music as well.

”When I was a student in Cornell back in the 1950s, I was getting all the new Stravinsky pieces, and the only Stravinsky records I would buy, were Stravinsky conducts Stravinsky. Anybody else – to hell with it! That stayed that way, until I heard the recording by Boulez and Cleveland doing The Rite of Spring. Cher Maître! Boulez is the greatest conductor of the 20th century, to me.

In any event, those Stravinsky recordings, and his insistence and desire to make those recordings, is to say, look, this is how I hear it. The Deutsche Grammophon recording of Drumming by me and Russel Hartenberger and Bob Becker and my ensemble, the ECM recording of Music for 18 Musicians with my ensemble and all the other recordings are the equivalent for me and my ensemble saying, look, this is how we heard it; we’re the original instruments, have a good time! Here’s something you can think about, but not that you’re gonna follow like a slave, that’s insane.

Any music that can’t be interpreted, there’s something wrong with the music. I don’t know any music like that! Any music that can’t be interpreted, is not going to be played at all.

When I first heard Colin Currie do Drumming, my jaw dropped. I thought, this is wonderful, and also, I wanna kill these guys! We can’t do that, so stop it! You’re better than we are! I told Colin all this. It’s great, I said, when you and your group play, I see younger people, who heard this music when they were teenagers and they’ve been playing it a long time and they play it with a lot more expression, a lot more dynamics and certain kind of ease. Whereas we were struggling; we had to work to get it together, to make it work, technically.

That’s one of the beautiful things about music. If you live long enough, you get to see your music being played by younger generations, and they bring something new to it. They bring their whole life as musicians to your music and that is just wonderful! It is really wonderful, wonderful thing. I mean, sometimes it isn’t wonderful, but usually it is, I must say.”

Colin Currie and Steve Reich performing Clapping Music. © Colin Currie Group

In terms of interpretation, unlike a lot of contemporary music, Reich’s scores often bear Baroque-like, quasi-Bachian emptiness, in a sense that dynamic markings and other types of performance instructions are used somewhat sparingly throughout.

”While there are dynamic markings here and there, I think, generally, my scores are undermarked. My very, very important basic feeling I got way back when I was at Juilliard, was that there are two kinds of musical mindsets. There’s the chamber music mindset and there’s the orchestral mindset. The orchestral mindset is, of necessity, based on locking into the conductor. Of course, it depends. If you are doing Mozart or Haydn, particularly, you really can play it very easily and very well without a conductor. With Beethoven, and definitely after Beethoven, by the time you’ll get to Mahler, it’s inconceivable. The Germans are talking about Gestus, it is not really time, it is Gestus, maybe time, but that’s just another Gestus.

That whole period of music after Beethoven, to Wagner or to Schoenberg or to Webern, is something that I’m in awe of the mastery of involved, but on emotional level, I don’t want to hear it. I’ve learned a few things from it, yes, but nowhere near what I’ve learned from Bach, Machaut, Pérotin, Josquin, Stravinsky, Bartók, Debussy, Ravel and many many others, John Coltrane and African drumming, Balinese gamelan and Hebrew chant.

So therefore, I think, if you value, and I do, the chamber music mentality, which is a mentality that, first of all, says you have to invent your life. You’re not gonna get a contract from an orchestra with your health insurance. You’re gonna have to say, well, we’re gonna form a string quartet and now we’re gonna form another kind of group, and then you hope it’ll gonna work. And you have to organize management and you’ve got to, literally, build your own musical existence on every level.

And when you’re playing, you’re absolutely tied into the reacting to other musicians. I think, one of the reasons Music for 18 Musicians is such a good piece, is that it is completely chamber music. Even the vibraphone player, who’s giving the cues, must figure out, when is really the right time to change from one section to the next. And musicians get that. You can go to any performance of Music for 18 Musicians and you’ll see how the musicians are looking at each other, leaning over. It’s a large piece of chamber music, and that mentality is communicated to the audience; they see that, they feel that, and they participate.

So, that mentality is also in the idea of wanting to give the musicians a score that gives the information that they need. There are times you absolutely need to mark in dynamics. But there are many times, much of the time in my music, where it’is basically, look, you can see what’s there, use your own internal musicianship to see how you want it to go.”

In the 1980s, when Reich began writing orchestral music, that same mentality was carried over to these pieces as well, starting with The Desert Music (1983).

”When Michael Tilson Thomas was rehearsing the American premiere performances of The Desert Music in New York in Brooklyn Academy of Music, we were blessed with thirty six rehearsals. Unbelievable! Mostly sectionals, but also full. At one point, in the second or the fourth movement, he said, there ought to be sforzandi. Now, I had never written a sforzando before that. So I turned to Michael and said to him, Michael, pretend I am dead! Figure it out yourself.

So we put in the sforzandi, and it was great, it was wonderful. And I learned from that experience that if a conductor has a feeling, go with it! Because that’s how a piece takes on a real life, an accumulated life of all the musicians who suggested this and who suggested that.”

Tracing down his musical chronology, Reich’s road to become a composer started in the early 1950s. His first teacher was Roland Koloff, percussionist, who then became the Principal Timpani of the New York Philharmonic.

”He taught me drumming when I was fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, when he was also called ’Butch’ Koloff. He introduced a book, which is a standard book for percussionists, called Stick Control. It is basically hand alternation patterns. One of the most famous ones is paradiddle; left, right, left, left, right, left, right, right. I lead it with my left hand, because I’m leftie.

That technical book suggested the idea of patterns, achieved through alternation of hands in mallets, sticks, whatever, maybe at a keyboard, even a piano. Look at Piano Phase, it is bascially hand movements. So that was a teacher, who wasn’t a composition teacher, but who had an influence on me through standard percussion text.”

Following his initial percussion lessons with Koloff, Reich enrolled Cornell University for further studies in music.

”At that point, I was totally getting more and more involved with Stravinsky, Bartók, Bach; going back into earlier music and going into all kinds of twentieth century music. I took a course with Professor William Austin, who was a wonderful pianist, organist, harpsichord player. A superb musician, who had a huge interest in Stravinsky and contemporary music, well, twentieth century music. For instance, he introduced me to The Rake’s Progress. I don’t care for opera, but I got very involved in that. Incredible piece, not at all like The Rite of Spring, I mean, completely different world.

I also went to his jazz analysis course. I remember, we were playing Charlie Parker’s Donna Lee, which is really fast, and Austin is at the blackboard, listening to the record with a piece of chalk in his hand, and he’s putting in the notes! And then he turns around to us and says, could you play it one more time, so I can put in the stems. What he was showing to us, is that jazz musicianship is at huge, high level, be it the complexity of someone like Charlie Parker or the utter simplicity of someone like Miles Davis. On a personal level, I preferred Miles Davis.”

About to graduate from Cornell, Reich was accepted to Harvard, to study philosophy. However, that was not to be the path he would eventually take.

”I didn’t want to do that. I couldn’t. So Austin said, why don’t you study with Hall Overton. I don’t know how Austin knew him, but Hall Overton was a graduate of Juilliard and a well-recognized jazz pianist, and close friend and associate of Thelonius Monk. So I did get to go down to New York City when graduated and start studying with him.

Hall immediately had me go back to piano and start going through the Mikrokosmos, the first two volumes. And that was like solid gold! It wasn’t some of these stupid little children’s books. It was Unison Canon, Canon at the Fifth, In Lydian Mode… I really learned about canons and modes, which are essential to what I do. I mean, I kinda knew about them, but I really learned them from Bartók.

And Hall said to me very early, like the first couple of days, I want you to write a melody that goes up-down, I want you to write a melody that goes down-up and I want you to write a melody that goes straight across. And I looked at him and said, Hall, do I have enough technique? And he looked at me right in the eye, you’ll never have enough technique, now get to work! I told that to David Lang and he said that would make a perfect epitaph!

So Hall was a very, very important teacher. And very encouraging and very positive and very informative. We also went through the Hindemith harmony book, which is good, because it is mostly exercises and very little text.”

Steve Reich photographed in New York City by © Jeffrey Herman

After studying with Overton, Reich went to Juilliard. Of his teachers there, Reich points out Vincent Persichetti, a multi-faceted composer and educator, who taught several generations of young composers in the course of his forty plus years at Juilliard, including Einojuhani Rautavaara and Philip Glass.

”Vincent Persichetti was an incredible musician. He could improvise in any style in front of you. He could sight-read your pieces, no matter what they were. I went to see him and I had this piece, I think it was for violin and piano, and I couldn’t figure out what it was harmonically; just free atonal music. So I showed it to him. I don’t think it’s atonal, he said, and I don’t think it’s free either. Look, you’ve got a dominant chord here, and then you got this lower one too, and they both fulfill the same function. It’s an added-note-chord. I wanted to give him a hug!

I tell you another story about him. Some years later, I went to a concert at New York University downtown by some composer, who had gone to Juilliard, whose name I don’t even remember. I was in the room waiting for the concert to begin. In walks Mr Perischetti, and he sits down right behind me. The concert begins, and the music was not good, not bad; I don’t remember it. Anyway, at the end, I turn to him and say, oh, Mr Perschetti, so nice of you to come to hear your students. And he says, oh, well, I like to keep up. And then he says to me, how’s that dominant eleventh doing? You know, the one with the organs and the maracas!

Then we were about to leave. Hall Overton had died just recently. And Hall too had been a student of Perischetti’s. So I said to him, I guess you heard that Hall passed away. He paused and said, well, I don’t believe in death anyway. And then he left. He was a very very special man.”

Reich’s next teacher was no other than Luciano Berio, one of the key figures of European postwar avant-garde.

”Luciano Berio actually started being my teacher before either one of us knew it. While I was still at Juilliard, Berio came to Manhattan, to New School, downtown, to give a concert of his music, I guess there were other people’s music as well, but the piece of his that was done was Circles, the setting of e e cummings, with Cathy Berberian singing. The piece starts with Cathy going ssssssssss…, which is the beginning of ’stinging’. While she goes, Berio starts percussion, sand paper blocks, going shshshshsh… So I think to myself; untuned percussion imitating untuned sibilants in the voice. Thanks a lot, what do I owe you?

So, his music was something you could learn from right away, simply by listening to it; and it was beautifully done. And what’s more, e e cummins was writing poetry about phonemes, but all the American composers were setting it sentimentally. Garbage! Here comes an Italian, and he gets it entirely and nails it. So that was very impressive.”

Cutting a long story short, Reich eventually went to California and ended up doing his Master’s degree with Berio at Mills College.

”When I left Juilliard, I had just finished my first twelve-tone piece for string orchestra; definitely not the best thing I have ever done. I showed it to Berio. He looked at it and said, if you want to write tonal music, why don’t you write tonal music? And I thought, wow, coming from you, that’s really a good idea!

At that time, Berio himself was doing Ommaggio a Joyce, a tape piece where Cathy Berberian was reading Finnegan’s Wake, the last book of James Joyce that nobody can really understand. And then he was cutting it up and editing the tape. It was definitely the right setting of Finnegan’s Wake.

Around those days, we’re talking about 1962 and 1963, everybody, including me, was fooling around with tape loops. Most people were also making electronically generated sounds, coming from sine-wave generators. One day, Berio played us two pieces by Karlheinz Stockhausen. The first piece was Electronic Studies and the second piece was Gesang der Jünglinge. Right away, I went for Gesang der Jünglinge, because of the voice. Always voice, voice, voice!

Electronically generated sounds, forget that, use speech; ordinary English words that you find, wherever. Indirectly, I was set to a path that lead to It’s Gonna Rain, where the idea was that to make an interesting tape piece. The electronic part, the tape in itself, is not really the answer. But the spoken content is going to become a lot more human, if you first give first something that is understandable and then develop that through repetition and phasing, through canonic variation.”

In addition to Willam Austin, Hall Overton, Vincent Persichetti and Luciano Berio, there were many other teachers who weren’t officially teachers, but whose input nevertheless proved essential along the way.

”I helped Terry Riley to put together the first performance of In C and learned an enormous amount from that experience. We worked very closely on that. And I was the one, who, in rehearsals, said, you know, we’re not staying together, we need a pulse (I’m the drummer, right). So my girlfriend began playing the high C’s, and that’s how that became a part of In C.

While I was studying with Berio by day, I would go to hear John Coltrane by night, whenever he was in San Francisco, at the Jazz Workshop. He was playing with his quartet, great group. I would go there at night and listen to what he was doing and then I would go to study with Berio. The other students in the room, with the exception of Phil Lesh, would come with these very complex pieces, but they could not sit down and play any of it. And I often wondered, did they really hear it in their heads, or was just Papiermusik, paper music.

So there’s Coltrane, who walks in, picks up his instrument and plays, and here they have, I don’t know what. That was how my ensemble began. I felt, whatever my limitations, it’s more honest for me to play in my own ensemble; to put together a group of musicians and become one of the players. That was the impetus.

I started it with a kind of improvisation ensemble, no so great. But when I got back to New York in 1966, I started my own ensemble with John Gibson and Arthur Murphy, which then grew to include Philip Glass, James Tenney and Steve Chambers, until finally, with Drumming it became twelve musicians, with Russ Hartenberger, Bob Becker and Jim Preiss. My ensemble grew all the way to 2006, when I just really could not maintain that any more.”

Alongside his formal and informal music education, multi-layered influences from several non-Western traditions have played a crucial role for Reich’s development as a composer.

”While I was student of Berio’s, I think, ’62 or ’63, he took us down to Ojai, which was the festival that Stravinsky started back in the fifties. That year they had various American luminaries, and one of them was Gunther Schuller, who was, at that time, writing a history of early jazz. He was talking to us students, and he said, I’ve discovered a book that has the first accurate scores of Ghanaian drumming, Studies in African Music by A. M. Jones.

So I went back to San Francisco, to Berkeley library, and got this book out. It was in two volumes, one just of scores, one of analysis and commentary. I looked through, not all of it, but a good chunk of the early stuff, and discovered repeating patterns with downbeats that don’t coincide.

I then quickly discovered another book, Music in Bali, by Colin McPhee, filled with scores, photographs, and there were lots of recordings of Balinese music. And this lead to first studying some Ghanaian drumming up at Columbia University, for a very short period of time, and then making the trip to Ghana in 1970. And then later, in 1973 and 1974, going first to Seattle and then to Berkeley to study Balinese gamelan by playing it, with Balinese teachers. At the same time, I forming an ensemble of my own, so I was a teacher of my own music and a student of Balinese music. All these experiences had an influence on me.

In 1977, Beryl and I went to Jerusalem to study Hebrew chant, cantillation; particularly the first five verses of Genesis, in Hebrew. And we made contact with someone at the Hebrew University, to reach Sephardic Jews, Jews from Baghdad, Jews from Kochin, India, Jews from Yemen, who represent the oldest strand of Jewish music, from the State of Israel before the Babylonian dispersion, five hundred years BC. We were reaching out to musicians, just people, basically, from these countries, who were over the age of sixty and who had grow up in these countries. Their children, who had grown up in Israel, had become very westernized. But these older people were still brought up speaking Arabic and Hebrew, and their pitches were the pitches not on the keyboard; they were microtonal.

I remember being in a Yemenite household, and the father did this kind of singing, totally. But he wanted us to record his son, who had just got out of the army, a very lovely guy. And he was going in D minor, completely westernized. So, musical traditions that have lasted for two thousand and five hundred years, because of the realities of the world, were broken. And I was there literally to see it.

What was interesting about it to me as a composer, was the structure of the chant, irregardless of the notes. It’s not the sound, it’s how it’s put together. Now, if you go to any Hebrew text of the Torah, and you find the letters, which have no vovels. The vovels, if they’re at it, are dots or dashes below or above the letters. And then there’s another marking, that looks kinda like hand positions, and that is the musical notation. It’s like medieaval neumes. In other words, it’s shapes that suggest patterns; an opening motive, a continuing motive, a half cadenza, a full cadenza and a whole lot others. In other words, you can have a structure laid out, and then you fill in the notes.

That lead me to a piece called Octet, which then became Eight Lines. In that piece, there are interlocking piano lines, which are basically in 5/4 and in two-bar phrases. And there are resulting patterns that come from those piano parts. Now, you pick several of those resulting patterns and make longer melodies out of them, as suggested by the structure of the Hebrew chat. It doesn’t sound like it at all, it actually sounds more like Miles Davis.”

Interestingly, Reich considers Pérotin as one of his most important teachers. A composer associated with the Notre Dame school, Pérotin lived in Paris around the end of the 12th and the beginning of the 13th century. Apart from a handful of surviving musical compositions, next to nothing is known about the life and times of the composer himself.

”He had been dead for eight hundred years, when he became my teacher. I was at Cornell, and Professor Austin was playing us early music, right after he’d done Gregorian chant. And suddenly I hear this beautiful thing. So, I went to music library, and in those days, music library was books on a shelf. And there was a book called Masterpieces of Music Before 1750, with this Alleluia by Pérotin, where one voice is basically one held tone throughout the whole piece. So, you could take a phrase, stretch it, and have all these decorative voices around it. It is basically a melody becoming a series of drones; a series of shifting harmonic centers. What a way to structure music! Four Organs is inconceivable without Pérotin. And Proverb is a conscious homage to him. I wrote it with Pérotin on the piano.

Steve Reich and the members of Colin Currie Group in recording session. © Colin Currie Group

With age and all the mounting experiences that have come with it, the very process of composing does not necessarily become any easier in itself.

”One thing is always difficult, and that’s the beginning, getting started, at least for me. I mean, it’s like going to the dentist. But once you begin and know what you are doing, it becomes a lot easier. The fact is that some pieces just happen and other pieces are very difficult. However, it does not mean that the piece that just happened is better than the one that was very difficult. It takes a while, for me, to just figure out, how successful a piece is.

With Traveler’s Prayer, I knew, I had to start with my text and have it in order. When I started composing the music, I decided to use a pre-existing melody, the one sung by the cantor in the last movement of WTC 9/11. Now, I’d never done that before. But there it was, a pre-existing melody, which was not only influencing me, but was also actual cantillation. The rhythm, however, became mine. And I came to realize that the rhythm was crucial, if you went to retrograde or inversion and if you wanted to stretch the harmonic center, while that process goes on.

Now, my canons have generally been pretty strict. But suddenly I felt, no, no, no, I don’t want do what I have done all and all over again. What I wanted, was to stay put and have variety through inversion and through retrograde. I also decided that the voices would sing the same text, so that part of the canon was to be strict. But the pacing would be completely free, depending on the intervallic harmony as it went. And when the piece got to a certain place, the piano would join in at the absolute bottom of the keyboard, like a deep breath or a fermata. I’ve always used two pianos, but here the piano was in a completely different role, like a huge bell or something.

In certain ways, it was very much like the early pieces, because I was going completely into the unknown, you know, closing my eyes and just trying to figure it out. On the other hand, it was very, very exact, in terms of extending this voice more here, and things like that.

So, I don’t think it get easier, I don’t think it gets harder, I think it just keeps on going. Hang on and do the best job you can possibly do. And if it isn’t good, trash it, correct it, until you like every single part. And when it is done, it is done. I’m not going back the way Boulez did, no. Other people can do what they like.”

© Jari Kallio

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