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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
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
Translation: Rebecca Anne Clark
The Essential Steve
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
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.