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A Conversation with Steve Reich

Posted By: Katie McMurran · 5/7/2013 2:48:00 PM

The pioneering American composer Steve Reich has been hailed by the New York Times as “among the great composers of the century." Tonight he makes a rare LA appearance for a concert of his works as a part of LACMA's Art and Music Concert Series. KUSC Associate Producer Katie McMurran caught up with him after a recent rehearsal.

KM: Here we are at LACMA, and I understand you performed in art museums at the beginning of your career.

SR: As a matter a fact, I was at LACMA in 1972 or 1973, and we played Drumming in the atrium, and it was very difficult because the echo was enormous, but it was an occasion. When I started out in the late 1960's, basically what I was doing was quite different than the ruling Cage, Stockhausen, Boulez mentality, which everybody had to do or be laughed at as a fool. And I took the risk of being laughed at as a fool. I had a lot of artist friends like Richard Serra, Bruce Nauman, Sol LeWitt, and when they were involved in museum shows they would often speak to the curator about [having me perform]. So it was based on personal associations. So that led to the world premiere of Drumming being played at the Museum of Modern Art, and a concert being given at the Whitney Museum with Pendulum Music, where Richard Serra and Bruce and myself, and James Tenney and Michael Snow were the performers. Gradually, starting In the mid 1970's, with my Music for 18 Musicians, people began to think maybe it wasn't quite as lunatic as they thought, and we began to plays in standard concert halls. Now one of my biggest supporters is Carnegie Hall.

KM: You have cited many different influences on your music - Bach, Bartok, jazz, Ghanian drumming, Balinese music. I'm wondering if you feel like there is any common thread that connects all of these?

SR: In a crude but accurate sense, it's a rhythm that you can tap your foot to. As opposed to German Romantic music, starting with maybe Schumann and Schubert, and certainly by Brahms and onwards. I'm not drawn to any Romantic music. The music that was sort-of forced down my throat and everybody else who was a music student in America and Europe, was the music of Boulez, Stockhausen, Berio, Cage, and this is music to which you certainly couldn't tap your foot and which you really didn't know what key you were in, because you weren't in any key. And there was no postman or anybody else whistling any tunes. I felt like I wanted to do all three, because I was drawn to Stravinsky very strongly, I was drawn to Bach very strongly, I was drawn to Bebop, and while everybody could respect and see that, it was unthinkable that you would actually sound at all like that. You might know about it and go out and hear it. I think it fell to my generation to restore normalcy. What do I mean by that? During the Renaissance, everyone from Machaut up through Palestrina had to write a Missa L'homme armé. What's that? A very beautiful French folk song. Here are these leaders of the age, all writing a Mass, which was in those days like writing a symphony, a major form, using a French folk song as their sometimes hidden basis for structure. Cut to Haydn, right in the 104th Symphony, a great masterpiece: a drinking song from Austria. We can't separate Bartok from the folk music. Stravinsky lied through his teeth, great man, but he lied through teeth: "Oh no, no Russian folk music." Firebird, Petrushka, Rite of Spring, are filled with Russian folk music, much to his credit, because he heard it as a kid, of course it was going to be there...And it's only in this strange aberrant period, created by Arnold Schoenberg and his students, when the window was slammed shut, and it fell to my generation to open the window, because that's what we loved. Now we're living in a world, where forget about A&R people who want to make crossover records, but young musicians like Jonny Greenwood who is a violist and is a composer, is also a rock star. Or Bryce Dessner, who recorded a piece of mine (2x5), can play anything you put in front of him, went to Yale School of Music, but he runs The National with his brother. On Monday he's a rock and roll star, on Tuesday, he's playing notated music. We're seeing a generation of musicians who have gone through our finest conservatories, who can play anything you put in front of them, but love rock and roll, and say: "Well, I'll play that too, what's the problem?" So it's a genuine expression of something that really is not new, it's a restoration to normalcy.

KM: You studied with Berio. When did it dawn on you that you didn't want to pursue serialism?

SR: (Laugh) I knew it long before I met Luciano Berio. The last piece I wrote at Juilliard, before I went out west to study with Berio, was a string orchestra piece, which was my first strictly 12-tone piece, and the way I dealt with a 12-tone row was to never transpose it, never retrogade it, never invert it, just repeat it over and over again. So I showed it to Berio, and Berio was a great guy, I liked him and learned a lot from him, and he said: "You want to write tonal music? Why don't you write tonal music?" And I said: "That's what I'm trying to do." When I met Berio he was working on Ommagio a Joyce, which was his then-wife Cathy Berberian, the avant-garde vocalist at the time, reading Joyce's "Finnegan's Wake" and he, Luciano Berio, cutting the tape into little phonemes. I found this very interesting. And then he as a teacher played for the students two pieces by Karlheinz Stockhausen: Electronic Studies and Gesang Unlinger. And I thought to myself: "Gesang Unglinger!" Why? Because of the voice, there was a voice of a young boy. So I thought to myself: "If I'm going to be working with tape music, I want to work with the voice." After several years, and fooling around with tape loops and studying African repeating patterns, I came up with the tape pieces: It's Gonna Rain and Come Out. And part of that reason, was Berio made me aware of my own inner desire to work with speech and not electronically-generated sound.

KM: You're performing Clapping Music on tomorrow night's program. What is it like going back to your earlier works now?

SR:  What I did then is what I did then, and what I do now is what I do now. I do basically what I really love to do. If someone said to me: "Steve, would you write us a piece like Drumming?" I'd say: "How much money have you got?" And if he had a whole lot of money, I'd write some terrible piece because I'm not the person who wrote Drumming anymore. I'd want to change key, I'd want to change instrumentation. I can't do that the way I did it in 1971, because I'm no longer the person I was in 1971. If you have to say what's changed in my music, the rate of repetition has sped up enormously. You can hear it in Sextet which was way back in the 1980's. If somebody heard Piano Phase and then Sextet, they might not think it was the same composer.

KM: What advice would you have for a composer just starting out?

SR: I would advise any composer starting out to get involved in the performance of their music. If you're a player, play your instrument. If you're a conductor, conduct. If you program a drum machine, program a drum machine. But get involved, so you don't have to give an mp3 to somebody with excuses saying: "Well, we didn't have enough rehearsal!"

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