A subtext for deepening confusions: Steve Reich at 70 by Norman Lebrecht
/ November 5, 2006
It has been 40 years since Steve Reich,
finding his music derided for its apparent simplicity by conventional
musicians, formed his own ensemble and pitched straight at the public
ear. ‘I knew what I was doing,’ says Reich. ‘All I needed was
a few people who could hear what I had in my mind.’
At the time, composers who wanted to
be taken seriously wrote serial atonalities in the manner of Pierre
Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Luciano Berio. Reich, who had studied
with Berio in California, dismissed these complexities as intrinsically
Eurocentric – a solution to problems he did not recognize or share.
He found the lush romanticism of Mahler and Strauss equally alien to
the busy, make-it rhythms of American city life. Music, to Reich, began
with the beat. His impulse to write it began at 14 when a friend played
him records of Bach’s fifth Brandenburg Concerto and Stravinsky’s
Rite of Spring. Soon after, he heard bebop - Charlie Parker on sax and
Kenny Clarke on drums. ‘Basically, I went into that room and never
left it,’ says Reich.
By the mid-sixties, he was at the cutting
edge of a counter-culture – literally cutting up tapes he had made
of speech phrases and stitching them into hypnotically rhythmic loops
that played in and out of phase with one another. The patterning captivated
the psychedelic types that hung around downtown art galleries. He tried
it out in live performance on two concert pianos, in Piano Phrase. At
30, Steve Reich had invented a form of minimalism that would alter the
course of music history.
‘Serialism is dead!’ he now exults,
ahead of the 70th birthday accolades. John Adams and Michael Nyman have
named Reich as their leading influence. Arvo Pärt is a soulmate. Even
Berio got to like his music before he died. More than any living composer,
Steve Reich transformed the image of contemporary classical music from
painfully abstruse to potentially cool. Vinyl remixes of his early works
can be heard at many dance clubs (there’s a new set out next month
‘There was a historical break in what
I did,’ he reflects, without braggardry. ‘What happened was a similar
kind of house cleaning to what Johann Sebastian Bach did 300 years ago,
going back to basics. I didn’t envisage this when I was starting out.
I just had my nose to the grindstone and plugged away.’
Playing mostly in galleries, he earned
his keep early on driving a house-moving van in lower Manhattan with
a young admirer called Philip Glass. After a few joint concerts, the
pair fell out and have not spoken since. While Glass turned to opera,
Reich worked on instrumental colours and rhythms, taking a research
trip to Ghana and studying Balinese gamelan in Seattle. In the mid-70s,
his Music for 18 Instruments sold 100,000 records and played on late-night
rock stations between Dylan and the Stones.
It was around this time that Reich met
his second wife, Beryl Korot, and experienced a spiritual awakening.
‘I began to think I’m not African, nor Balinese. I’m a Jew.’
He studied Torah with Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald at Lincoln Square synagogue
and became a fully practicing orthodox Jew, eating vegetarian kosher
food, avoiding Friday night performances, unplugging the phone at sundown
on Friday. ‘The effect was extremely positive in a personal sense,’
he says. It was not without external risk, though, for while music has
accommodated all manner of mystics, it had never before embraced a composer
who placed his demanding faith ahead of career opportunities.
Reich went to Jerusalem to record Yemenite
cantillations for singing the Torah and returned with the luminous Tehillim
for chorus and ensemble, richly melodic and unmistakably individual.
‘People said I was writing Jewish music,’ he complains. ‘I said
I was writing Reich.’
He returned to Israel with Beryl Korot
to create The Cave, a work for live musicians with six-screen video
projection that explores the common ancestry and beliefs that are shared
by Jews and Moslems. ‘I’m not a person who deludes himself into
thinking that artists can change the world,’ says Reich with a touch
of world-weariness. ‘I don’t think The Cave will solve the Mideast
any more than Picasso stopped the Blitz with Guernica.’ But he cannot
shut his eyes to the ideas and outrages of our time. A further video
trilogy reflects on Hiroshima, the Hindenburg airship disaster and the
ethical implications of cloning Dolly the Sheep.
Some critics have acclaimed these collaborations
as a template for the operatic future, ignoring the inimitability of
Reich’s method in combining recorded materials, philosophical teachings,
original sound and political engagement. His is a self-made revolution
achieved largely with his own hands, his own band - at one point actually
barring other musicians from playing his works. Magnetic though it is,
Reich’s music lacks the peacock strut of star interpreters or the
gymnastic virtuosity that wins cheap ovations. Quiet, intense, unfailingly
well-made, it comes without added colourings and chemicals, the organic
alternative to industrial art.
At its most self-involved, Reich’s
music can play on and on until you are no longer aware of hearing music
at all and are listening instead to the drumming inside your head. At
his most communicative, on the other hand, Reich compels attention on
several levels at once. No-one else could have twinned the misery of
a shuttled boyhood in a broken American home to the backdrop of European
Holocaust, as Reich does in Different Trains, creating not just a masterpiece
for string quartet (with amplified tape), but a way for Haydn’s invention
to find a relevance to modern lives.
Nothing in Reich is mono-linear. He thinks
in historical parallels, is intrigued by paradoxes, appalled by present
atrocities. ‘Who would have guessed we’d face a medieval religious
conflict in the 21st century?’ he demands. And which other composer,
I wonder, is working on a musical subtext for our deepening confusions?
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