Steve Reich has much to celebrate

Composer Steve Reich

by Seth Rogovoy

(NORTH ADAMS, July 25, 2002) – In case you haven’t noticed, this is Steve Reich week in the Berkshires. Earlier this week, his piece, “Triple Quartet,” was performed at Tanglewood’s Contemporary Music Festival. And on Saturday, several of his works, including “Drumming,” “Piano Phase” and “New York Counterpoint,” will be performed at the Bang on a Can Summer Marathon at Mass MoCA, a six-hour showcase for the students and faculty of Bang on a Can’s Summer Institute, which winds up its two-week residency at MoCA (662-2111) this weekend.

So what does it mean that within one week and just a few miles, Reich is being performed in the hallowed halls of Tanglewood – the epitome perhaps of the classical establishment -- and as part of an anti-establishment, avant-garde festival at a contemporary art museum?

“It means I’m sixty-five years old and I’ve been doing this for a while,” said Reich, somewhat facetiously, in a recent phone interview from his home in New York.

“It takes a long time to get recognized as a composer. People playing Bach and Mozart are not easily impressed. But if you persist and win the respect of players, in all areas of written music, you get heard. And the other proviso is that audiences want to hear what you’ve written. Those are the hallmarks, whether it’s Bach or Bang on a Can.”

To be fair, Reich wasn’t alone among the renegades in having his work performed as part of Tanglewood’s new-music week. Compositions by Bang on a Can co-founders David Lang and Julia Wolfe were also played at Tanglewood this week.

Nevertheless, while Reich began making his mark in contemporary music as one of the pioneers of minimalism in the late-1960s, he credits Bang on a Can’s efforts for making the environment for new composers more hospitable today than ever.

“When they arose in the Eighties, the new music scene was centered more around improvisation and John Zorn,” said Reich. “The prevailing ethos seemed to be, ‘We don’t write, we improvise.’

“Then Bang came along and encouraged people to continue to write music that is expressive of the time in which we live. And now there is a more lively scene in New York centered around composition.”

It has already been a busy year for Reich. His latest work, “Three Tales,” a digital video opera he created with video artist Beryl Korot – who is also Mrs. Steve Reich – had its world premiere in May at the Vienna Festival. The piece, which concerns the physical, ethical and religious implications of 20th-century technology, continues to be performed this summer and fall throughout Europe, and will have its New York debut in mid-October as part of the 20th anniversary celebration of the Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Nonesuch Records plans to release a DVD/CD package of “Three Tales” early next year.

Oxford University Press has also just published Reich’s prose writing in a new collection, “Writings on Music, 1965-2000.” The 256-page volume compiles 64 essays, articles and interviews with Reich, tracing the development of his career as a composer, musical theorist and recording artist.

Included are his groundbreaking, aphoristic essay, “Music as a Gradual Process” – in which Reich laid down a composer’s manifesto of sorts – and pieces recounting his exposure to non-Western music, including African drumming, Balinese gamelan, and Hebrew cantillation. Although the book includes musical transcriptions and technical explanations of how some of Reich’s pieces work, most of his writing is surprisingly clear and accessible – much like his music, which is noted for its characteristic transparency, whereby the musical process reveals its structure.

Reich says it was inevitable that he would wind up composing in opposition to the prevailing mode of his time, the arcane, 12-tone serialism that was still being taught when he studied composition at Juilliard and Mills College in the late-1950s and early-‘60s.

“I had to write serial music, and I did, but I never inverted the row, or transposed or retrograded the row -- I repeated it,” said Reich.

“I was open to a number of influences that weren’t part of the menu. I think the quest for a buoyant, floating, magic sense of time was born when I was fourteen and hearing Kenny Clarke and Miles Davis and listening to the music of John Coltrane when he was playing lots and lots of notes and very few harmonies – what was called modal jazz.

“Those experiences were not part of the conservatory. Important music was being neglected, music that suggested formal procedures that one would not otherwise come upon.”

After graduate school, Reich moved to San Francisco, where he composed music for the San Francisco Mime Troupe. He also formed a new music improvisation group that included a trumpeter named Phil Lesh and a keyboardist named Tom Constanten – both who eventually became members of the rock band the Grateful Dead.

But it was another chance meeting, with composer Terry Riley that would eventually prove monumentally fortuitous. Riley was in town to perform his new work, “In C,” and Reich helped him form the rehearsal ensemble. He also suggested adding a rhythmic pulse to the piece that would become the signature work of Minimalism. (The piece, the subject of a definitive recording by the Bang on a Can All-Stars, will be performed in tomorrow’s concert.)

Soon after, Reich began composing his own pieces in his early “pulse” or “phase” style. Originally performed with taped music, Reich eventually found ways to shift the experimental music over to live musicians, beginning with “Piano Phase,” a 1967 work that will be performed tomorrow.

“This was the first live piece to use the technique I discovered in tape,” said Reich, who has two Grammy Awards to his credit, for recordings of “Different Trains” (1989) and “Music for 18 Musicians” (1998).

“The idea for doing it came from working with tape loops going in and out of phase. But I felt I couldn’t continue working with it unless it could be done by human beings on instruments -- otherwise it would be a gimmick.

“When I actually ended up doing it, basically it is a canon or round in unison with the rhythmic distance between the first voice and the second voice. In a sense it’s a slight addition to the history of canonic procedure. When I realized that, I felt much better about it. So ‘Piano Phase’ was very important in the sense that it was, ‘Look, ma, no tape!’”

In the 1970s, Reich began working with a larger sonic palette – belying the epithet “minimalist” – and created such memorable works as 1971’s “Drumming,” an excerpt of which will be performed tomorrow, “Tehillim” (1981), which evidenced the influence of his study of Hebrew cantillation, and “Different Trains” (1988), a piece that saw Reich return to his early interest in using speech recordings to generate the musical material for his compositions.

Most composers do not play their own pieces, but for most of his career, Reich has maintained a hands-on policy regarding performances of his work. Since 1971, his ensemble, Steve Reich and Musicians, has been the primary vehicle for performance of his compositions.

“I’ve written myself out of my work lately, but early on it was essential to me to be part of the ensemble,” said Reich. “It had a lot to do with my style through watching Coltrane. At the time I was attending Mills College as a graduate student, a lot of composers were writing incredibly complex pieces that no one would be able to play. The message of Coltrane to me was to be able to perform my compositions, and to have the parts grounded in the reality of performance.”

Last year, Reich’s work was the subject of a remix CD, “Reich Remixed,” on which American, British and Japanese DJs reconfigured his music for the dance floor, in large part using techniques of looping and sampling that Reich himself was pioneering back in the 1960s.

Reich said he was flattered by the tribute. “I’m delighted that people who weren’t even born when I was making some of this music are interested,” he said. “It’s a natural human thing to want people to respond to what you do. I’m not different from anyone else.

“That my music is of interest and even stolen and used in places totally unknown to me, that keen interest in it feels good.”

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on July 26, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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