Steve Reich in the Groove

Steve Reich Interview, December 1986

Minimalist music, repetitive music – these are terms often used to describe the work of American composer Steve Reich. Along with Philip Glass and Terry Riley he is considered to have founded a uniquely American school of composition. Combining a classical discipline with American jazz roots he has created a music which, though meditative in a sense, remains rhythmically compelling Reich’s influence has been widely felt in modern music, and acknowledged by such pop artists as David Bowie and David Byrne of Talking Heads. While in Paris for a recent concert series, he gave this interview to the Paris Voice.

Voice: How do you situate yourself in the contemporary music scene?

Steve Reich: I’m a composer, who has his own ensemble, I guess that’s important and it’s been the case since about 1966, shortly after I got out of my schooling which was the Juilliard School of Music, Cornell University and Mill’s College, where I ended up studying with people like Darius Milhaud and Luciano Berio, but where influences where just as important from Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and eventually John Coltrane. I just turned 50 so I’m an old be-bopper by generation. I have been fortunate to come to Europe fairly frequently since 1971.

My early concerts in New York City were presented in the Park Place Gallery which was a gallery that showed artists like Robert Smithson and Robert Morris and was referred to as a minimal art gallery.

Some of my first major concerts were at the Guggenheim Museum, the Whitney Museum and the opening of the Berkeley Museum of Art. My first concerts in Germany were at the Kunsthalle. So I had some connection with the visual arts…I had close friends in those days like Michael Snow the filmmaker, who’s since gone back to Canada and Richard Serra the sculptor. Laura Dean the choreographer/dancer is someone I’ve worked very closely with over the years, and continue to. I’ve been fortunate to make a number of records, people in Paris probably see them mostly on the ECM label, but there were earlier ones on Deutsche Gramaphone, CBS, and there are still some on Angel-EMI, and most recent ones including The Desert Music and the brand new one called Sextet are on Nonsuch.

Voice: You are often associated in the public minds with the terms minimalist for repetitive music. Is this a meaningful term when applied to what you do?

Reich: Well you know, they called Debussy an Impressionist and they still refer to that school of music that way. They called Schoenberg, Berg and Webern Experessionists, amongst other things, and they call me, Riley, Glass, Young and people like this minimalists. These terms all come from painting and sculpture, all of the composers who were so-designated did not like being designated this way and all of the composers who didn’t like it had nothing to say about it. Basically, in the words of the Spanish comedian, « Eets nut my job ». My job is to write the next piece and to worry about that.

Voice: Someone, when listening to your music remarked that it encouraged what he called « active listening » as opposed to « passive listening ». When listening to certain parts of Beethoven, for example, one’s attention is drawn automatically to a theme played in unison while in your music there are often many elements moving together in very subtle ways and one’s attention can go to one from another and back again depending on one’s predilection.

Reich: When you listen to a lot of pieces of mine, since something is being repeated for a while and since there are a number of instruments doing this, your ear can quite naturally be attracted to, the lower notes or those in the middle or top. Or it may drift back and forth. And indeed, if we get into the techniques, if we start looking at the score, I could show why your ear is being encouraged to wander.

One of the things that’s said, is that in my music one of the biggest problems in rehearsal is to find a downbeat. Where is one? If you’re writing music which is repetitive and you say, oh this is boring, this is simplistic, to prove that they’re wrong, to really make it a fact that they’re wrong, you’ve got to build something into the music that makes it very ambiguous as to where things are happening, where the end of a phrase is and the beginning of a phrase is. And there are some ways to do that.

One of them, which you can learn from African music, is to write in what we could call 12/8 and to divide that up so that you hear the six six, or you’ll hear it as maybe three three three of four four four, and that those ambiguities are sort of hanging there and they’re not stated exactly.

But those possibilities are in the air, open to interpretation because one has forced them to be open to interpretation and has not nailed them down. Once you build that in, then there’s an openness where the listener is encouraged to sort of jump into the water and go swimming and try it out.

Voice: What is the importance of adhering to one tonal center in composition for you, in contrast to, a lot of contemporary music which is atonal or to modern jazz where there are a lot of chords changing all the time, quite rapidly?

Reich:  Time and changes music is of course the music I was brought up on, and it goes through Coltrane and goes through Albert Ayler and goes through Eric Dolphy, but does not go through Ornette Coleman; and for me, I prefer Eric Dolphy, and I prefer John Coltrane. And I don’t care about free jazz at all. It meant nothing to me.

All over the world, that I’m aware of, you find certain very basic musical practices, and one of them in terms of notes is that you find the filth, dadum. That interval is omnipresent. And it always plays some kind of a role in either ending a phrase or beginning the next one. Now, many people have suggested over the years, and I think they’re right, that this is based on acoustics, on our ear, and on how the world is constructed physically.

Reeds vibrate a certain way so that they cut in half first which is the octave, and then they cut in fourths which is fifth. If you say oh well that’s merely human convention and we’re going to make a music of twelve equal tones. I think I understand why this came to be and we could talk about why this came to be, but you’re then neglecting a basic human trait, at your own peril. And I would say that the best music of this kind, and by that I mean Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, and then the generation that followed them, these people are great composers and I think that their music will endure, but I think that their music will endure in a small, dark corner of musical history. Schoenberg said “In 50 years the postman will whistle my tune”, well it’s going on a hundred. And the postman can’t even spell his name. Because the ear is not built to do that. It doesn’t mean that he was really wrong, it meant that he was carrying German romaticism to an extreme position. I would say that  this kind of music is really pretty much over; that those who follow these people, particularly in America, are totally irrelevant academics.

There is no question about that. There is no music of this sort that has ever been written in America that is worth spitting on. It’s junk. Over here, as I’ve said, it’s very serious. Coming from a certain time, a certain place and a certain tradition, and I respect it. But I think that its ultimate place historically will be as a kind of strange aberrant. And I say this in a good sense, we’ve lived in an aberrant time. Music that bore witness to something and which then passed away and is preserved honorably but in a small way. You can look today, if you look through the programs, that there are performances of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, they are not like they used to be in the fifties, and it will gradually decline.

Voice: In a way you could almost call that dance music.

Reich: Oh, there’s a lot of dance done to my music. I’m probably more choreographed than any other composer.

Voice: Who’s done it?

Reich:  Well, Laura Dean first, Jerome Robbins, New York City Ballet, Alvin Ailey, Béjart, Pearl Lang, Lucinda Childs, and the Paris Opera Ballet, those are the better known names.

Voice: Do you write your music in the traditional way, by hearing it in your head and then notating it?

Reich: Rarely, rarely. And if that’s the traditional way then Stravinsky didn’t do it either. I always work with an instrument. As a matter of fact, I think the only composer who made a big deal out of doing that was Bartok and I think Elliot Carter has made a big deal out of it. Stravinsky made a point of always worked with the keyboard. When I was younger I always worked with the keyboard, and I still do. Occasionally, I will overdub. And I do have an 8 track machine at home, before I used to use two track tape, and I will try to work things out that way. When we record, we do record it multitrack. Not because we overdub, because we don’t, we record it live. What I want to get is that sense of presence, and that sense of detail with everybody right there. But I’m very sympathetic towards multitrack technology and I do have an 8-track at home.

Voice: When you have what we call a groove, and you deplace an instrument, or make a subtle change in the relation of one to another, how much of this is a matter of your feel, and how much of it is a matter of intellectual calculation?

Reich.: Well, all of it is a matter of intuition or feel, and to establish what exactly one feels, one must finally calculate it and write it down. But the order of events is to go with intuition. I have never had a schema which I would then fulfill. That would be, I think, a terrible trap. And I think that is the kind of trap that happens to people who understand someone else’s technique, and say: Oh, I see how that is done and then with recipe in hand proceed to go out to fulfill it. But then, as you know, all great chefs are always tasting the food.

Voice: Listening to your music, there seems to be a meditative element. Do you meditate?

Reich: I used to be involved, between 1966 up to about 1980 in a daily regimen of Hatha Yoga, physical     Yoga and breathing exercises, and in 1980 I began to get a shoulder pain. I thought it was due to a dislocated shoulder which I had from playing football as a kid. I went to a doctor and he said, is that a recent injury? And I said no. And he said, you got something, what do you do? And I described my morning exercises. He asked if I stood on my head every morning. (laughs) I said Yeah and I’d been doing this for fifteen years and he said: stop. I was involved briefly with some northern Buddhist meditation, some southern, I was even involved with TM for a while, and none of them really took. And in 1974 I became serious about my own background, studying the Koran and the commentaries and that has finally become the spiritual practice which I’ve become involved with.

Voice: How does a musician first come to be able to record his music and disseminate it to the public?

Reich: A lot of it is circumstance, I think the most important decision along a practical line –  again, I grew up in America in a relatively innocent time vis-à-vis the arts, young people now are very career-conscious and anxious, the minute they’re out of graduate school, to figure out the next step –  when I got out of graduate school I started driving a taxi because I didn’t want to teach, and as far as my future went, I didn’t get into that. I just figured it would all work out. That was in the Great Society years, that was in the 1960’s, it was like, oh man, don’t bother me.

Maybe it’s a miracle that it all did work out, but the one thing I felt compelled to do…well, actually, while listening to Coltrane I realized I had to be involved with performance forms of my own. At graduate school there were a lot of people who were writing very complex, terribly black pages, which you know, A, they couldn’t play on piano or any other instrument, and, B, they probably didn’t hear it all in their head, and C, it would probably sound like you know what if you heard it live.

That’s one side of the picture, the other side’s where you go to the jazz workshop and you see John Coltrane standing up there: and music-just-comes-out. It’s almost like a moral confrontation, and I felt overwhelmingly on the side of Coltrane vis-à-vis the sociology of it. And I thought, I’ve got to be involved. I’m not a strong player, but I thought, it doesn’t matter. I played percussion. I started on keyboard and went to percussion at the age of fourteen. I go back and forth, but I’m not terribly strong in either one. And the result undoubtably is a scaling down, especially in the early pieces where I’m saying, I’m going to be playing this part and if that necessitates getting it simpler, amen.

So I did that, and I didn’t realize at that time that I was sowing the seeds. That was 1963. I’d just go out of Mills College. I came back to New York in 1965, and in 1966 I began the ensemble with two friends. In 1967 we had our first job, there was a concert at the Park Place Gallery. My first major appearance in New York City, Rauschenberg came, a lot of the artists of that period came. But even so, between that concert in 1967, and 1971, if we had two, or three, or four concerts a year, it was a lot. But they were getting to be the better arts museums and galleries that would be offering some concerts. It didn’t pay very much, you could hardly live on it, but al least there was a convention that you got paid. And that is the oldest tradition in music.

And even with what I’m doing in Paris, I’m not playing at all, but, because I had an ensemble, and because people know that I know the practical aspects of putting the music together (it’s a small item), they know it’s worthwhile to have me. I mean, I have a real function beyond sitting, and then taking a bow.

So, from my ensemble, and related activities that grew out of it, I economically made my way in the world. And I would say to any younger composers who happen to be seeing any of this, that at any level you want to look at it, it’s the best possible thing you can do – if you’re a conductor, conduct, if you’re a player, play, if you’re a synthesizer programmer, program, whatever it is, to be involved in the production and the playing of your own music. In this sense composers can learn a great deal from the rock community and the jazz community where the composer and the player are the same.


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