When the musical style known as Minimalism began to take hold in thelate 1960s it would have seemed almost inconceivable that, 40 years on,whole weekends would be devoted to public celebrations of its leadingcomposers.
In fact Steve Reich would have been an unlikely candidate for suchtreatment until recently, but his appointed position of the godfatherof this musical style is now completely assured, his influence felt farbeyond classical music.As a result the Barbican’s celebration ofhis 70th birthday is a likely sell-out, with two full days ofevents.
Where Reich has tended to win over the classical purists is in theconstant development of his material. Reich’s compositions employ gradualdevelopment on a more concentrated scale than contemporaries Philip Glass,Michael Nyman or John Adams, so that the patterns constructing a piece arealways subject to change. His output itself seems to be undergoing asimilar progression, with a more recent emphasis on word settings.
Reich was born in New York to Jewish parents, and but for a stint in SanFrancisco has lived there all his life. Despite a string ofbirthday-related interviews and the upheaval of moving house, he wasgracious in offering musicOMH.com a brief chat between tasks.
On the strength of our brief conversation his personality reflects hismusic rather well – energetic, incisive, almost impatient – but also goodhumoured. He sounds remarkably fresh, particularly when talking of thewatershed year in which he discovered Stravinsky’s Rite Of Spring,used as part of the Barbican celebration’s opening concert.
“I was 14 years old and a friend said to me: ‘I have something youreally should hear.’ I went round to his house and heard it, and I thinkthe whole world changed for me. I had never heard any music past Wagner, itwas like another universe. I had also never heard any music before 1750when I was a young child, but I heard Bach’s Fifth Brandenburg Concerto andthat made an enormous impression. And then I heard BeBop, CharlieParker, Miles Davis and drummer Kenny Clarke, and thatmade an enormous impression. Those three musics really formed thebackground of what I’ve done all my life. The Rite Of Spring was likesomeone had opened a door into a new room!”
Reich’s early works were speech based, though the speech alwayscontained implications of pitch. The first arrived almost by happyaccident. It’s Gonna Rain is a loop of street preacher BrotherWalter as taped in San Francisco’s Union Square, and employs a techniqueReich discovered on two looped reel to reel recorders, both moving atdifferent speeds and shifting their material further apart in time. Withthis and Come Out Reich defined his early style, but continued tostrive to write instrumental music.
This he began to realise with the relatively black and white keyboardworks Piano Phase and Four Organs, the latter an extendedmusical cadence of some twenty minutes that nearly caused a riot whenMichael Tilson Thomas included it in a Boston Symphony concert in1973.
By that time Reich had formed his own instrumental ensemble,specifically for the performance of his own music, and it was here that astrong sense of community began to take hold in his work. Nowhere was thismore evident than Drumming, a piece for percussion ensemble andvoices lasting anything up to an hour and a half, its compositionimmediately following an extended visit to Ghana.
Reich’s music continued to be firmly rhythm based, and the Music for18 Musicians fused a lean chamber orchestra and percussion, itsunbroken span of an hour proving something of a cult classic when recordedfor the ECM label in 1978.
The following year Reich moved into the orchestral field with theluminous scoring of Variations for Winds, Strings and Keyboards,though his feelings on that piece – and his subsequent orchestral output -are now less than complimentary. “I don’t write for the orchestra now. In1987 I decided that I don’t need eighteen first violins – as a matter offact that’s terrible for what I do. I need one or possibly three at themost, and that’s basically for all the pieces since then. You Are isthe outstanding piece that has ‘my’ orchestra – some woodwind, no brass,lots of percussion and four pianos, that’s basically my orchestra, andthat’s what I had in mind.”
Regarding the 1979 Variations, Reich says, “I am not very fond ofthat piece; it’s not something I have a great deal of affection for. I feelthe other orchestral pieces have their moments, particularly the first andsecond movements of Three Movements, and there is some interestingstuff in the last movement of the Four Sections but basically it’swriting with one hand tied behind your back, so I have no intention to goback at the moment. Life’s full of surprises though!”
Reich’s newest piece, the Daniel Variations, will receive itsworld premiere as the culmination of the Barbican festival. It’s ajuxtaposition of texts from the Old Testament book of Daniel with writingsof the American journalist Daniel Pearl, who was kidnapped in Pakistan in2002 and tragically killed. This is in effect Reich’s response to thetragedy of 9/11 – less direct than John Adams but according to thecomposer, his darkest music yet.
“It’s very dark but unfortunately that’s the world we’re living in,whether we like it or not. The dream from the book of Daniel is especiallyvivid, and it shows how dreams are heaven and reality is for us.” On hisenjoyment of writing vocal music, Reich says that “there is a lot ofrepetition in the early pieces, it’s true, but ever since Tehillimand The Desert Music I’ve been interested in setting texts, becauseit forces me to do something I wouldn’t otherwise do. Text insists on itsown harmonic interpretation, on its syllables, its sound and its meaning,and one has to deal with that. I also enjoy being forced to do something Ihaven’t done before.”
Reich’s appeal to pop listeners stems primarily from an appropriation ofElectric Counterpoint by The Orb, who sampled it for theirhit Little Fluffy Clouds. Reich did not complain at the use of the sample,receiving widespread respect for the decision, and in time has sanctionedremixes by leading electronic lights such as Coldcut and DJSpooky.
The Barbican’s weekend devoted to Reich’s seventieth will feature theseartists in a special ‘Remixing Reich’ concert on the evening of 7 October.From 11am that day early works will be performed in LSO St Luke’s,including It’s Gonna Rain and Come Out. Proverb andthe string quartet masterpiece Different Trains will follow in thesame venue in the afternoon, the latter performed by dedicatees theKronos Quartet.
Immediately following this comes a vocal concert at the Barbican Centre,with You Are and Tehillim offered in a fascinating contrastto Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta.
Reich fans have a similarly crowded second day to enjoy, up with thelark again for Eight Lines and Music for Mallet Instruments,Voices and Organ in St Luke’s at 11am. New York is under the microscopeat the church three hours later, with the Kronos Quartet once againfeaturing in fellow minimalist Michael Gordon‘s The Sad Parkalongside Reich’s City Life. ‘Responses To Reich’, in the Barbicanat 5pm, includes tributes from Gavin Bryars and David Lang, withElectric Counterpoint a crowd pulling inclusion. Finally’Quintessential Reich’ will offer just that, the new DanielVariations alongside Cello Counterpoint and the Music for 18Musicians, Reich himself leading the performance.
For those unable to attend Nonesuch has released an affordable five discsurvey of Reich’s work entitled “Phases”, including a good few of the pieceson show in definitive performances sanctioned by the composer. It’s arecorded legacy plotting Reich’s development as a composer of great verveand invention. For an example of how to make less into more, the music ofSteve Reich could be used as a vivid illustration.