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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 17, No. 4

Steve Reich: Repetition without Redundancy

by Lucie Renaud / December 1, 2011

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La Monte Young started it, Terry Riley (with his In C) provided the foundation, and Philip Glass reclaimed it, but many consider Steve Reich the most important figure in American minimalism.

“My generation is not a revolution. It was a restoration! A restoration of normalcy where popular sources were brought back into the normal situation of classical forces, and classical music—music that I was writing, that Glass or Terry Riley was writing—was interesting to the pop musicians,” explained Steve Reich, his legendary baseball cap in place, at the outset of an interview given for the Domaine Privé concert, held to mark his 75th birthday, at the Cité de la Musique de Paris, October 11 to 18.

Born October 3, 1936, in New York, Steve Reich initially studied piano before turning to percussion after hearing Kenny Clarke, the drummer for Miles Davis. He studied philosophy at Cornell and deepened his understanding of music history before devoting himself to composition with jazzman Hall Overton, William Bergsma, and Vincent Persichetti at the Juilliard School, where he was a contemporary of Philip Glass. He found himself in California next, and worked with Darius Milhaud and Luciano Berio. He rejected serialism, but stayed close to the modal jazz of John Coltrane and discovered African rhythms and percussion, which would become the essence of the rhythmic cells in his writing. Swept up in the psychedelic wave, rock, he adopted an approach not devoid of tonal references.

When he reflects on his years of study, Reich recalls the days when it was necessary for a young composer to master serial writing in order to be taken seriously by one’s peers. “I would say that I have a great deal more respect and regard for Webern than I do for Schoenberg because Schoenberg didn’t understand that he was writing contrapuntal music; he thought he was writing romantic music with twelve-tone notes. Webern understood that this was a contrapuntal technique. That political power, that you must write this way, was very powerful in the academic world and throughout the musical world. I say that my generation brought that to an end.”

Steve Reich has achieved this tabula rasa especially by prioritizing the use of repetition, a strategy that allows him to create “music as a gradual process.” In a 1968 text, he clarified his approach: “The distinctive thing about musical processes is that they determine all the note-to-note (sound-to-sound) details and the over all form simultaneously. (Think of a round or infinite canon.) I am interested in the perceptible processes. I want to be able to hear the processes happening throughout the sounding music. To facilitate closely detailed listening a musical process should happen extremely gradually.”

Unlike Cage, who uses random processes to influence the course of the narrative, Reich opts for a more collective search, a liberating ritual that permits multiple combinations of musical phrases from which he extracts the final material.

“What I’m interested in is a compositional process and a sounding music that are one and the same thing. … The use of hidden structural devices in music never appealed to me. Even when all the cards are on the table and everyone hears what is gradually happening in a musical process, there are still enough mysteries to satisfy all,” he said. “These mysteries are the impersonal, unintended, psycho-acoustic by-products of the intended process. These might include sub-melodies heard within repeated melodic patterns, stereophonic effects due to listener location, slight irregularities in performance, harmonics, difference tones, etc.”

Over the years, his musical language has evolved, but he favors small ensembles. If he composes little today, his works are played the world over, interesting even to electronica DJs.

Steve Reich’s 2x5 will be performed at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia on Feb. 4, 2011. Further performances of his work may be announced in the upcoming year.

Translation: Rebecca Anne Clark

The Essential Steve Reich
It’s Gonna Rain (1965) was designed around a repetitive motif and tape loops and essentially plays on the contrast between the human voice and electronic sounds.

Music for 18 Musicians (1976) is based on eleven fundamental chords that serve as pillars for the entire work. During the creation of this piece, Reich studied the Balinese gamelan.

Different Trains (1988) superimposes the voices of Pullman train conductors over those of Shoah survivors accompanied by a string quartet: the American Dream mingled with the horror of war.

City Life (1995) was built around the sounds of New York City and remains one of the composer’s best-known works.

Double Sextet (2007) won a Pulitzer Prize. Written for two identical sextets with interlacing motives. Reich considers this work among his most complete.

WTC 9/11 (2011) has already been the source of much controversy, largely due to the original album artwork depicting the Twin Towers, which has since been changed. Written for three string quartets (one live, two recorded) and recorded voices, it is meant to be more dissonant.

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