I compose to the honour of God

Interview with the composer Steve Reich

Steve Reich. Photo: Klaus Holsting.

By Anders Beyer

– You studied with Berio and Milhaud …

“Well, with Milhaud it wasn’t so much studying. It was more like keeping company with the man. He was an old man, and he was very ill. He spent most of the time talking about the good old days, especially about his relationship with Satie. You got the sense that he would himself have liked to have been Satie! With Luciano Berio it was something quite different: he was very active, and I learned a lot from him.”

– What did you learn from Berio?

“I learned to analyse Webern’s music, which led to a thorough knowledge of the techniques he used. Listening to Berio’s Omaggio a Joyce from 1958 for tape confirmed for me that the human voice is a fantastic resource in electronic music. Take for example Karlheinz Stockhausens Gesang der Jünglinge, Elektronische Studie I and Elektronische Studie II. The last two you can throw straight in the toilet, while Gesang der Jünglinge is a masterpiece, precisely because of the human voice. I looked up a lot to Berio, listened to several of his works with great profit. The way I worked with twelve-tone music was like this: never play the row backwards, never transpose the row, never invert the row, but repeat the row over and over again. Berio saw this in me, and he said: “If you really want to write tonal music, why don’t you just write tonal music?!” I replied: “Well that’s what I’m constantly trying to do.”

– Berio himself also wrote tonal music …

“Yes, but I’m talking about the time around 1962-63, and you must remember that if you didn’t write serial music at that time, you were quite simply a joke, you weren’t taken seriously at all. It was permissible to write like John Cage, Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen or Luciano Berio, but no more than that. Cage may think differently from the other three, but at bottom it’s the same kind of music: you can’t beat out the rhythm with your foot, you mustn’t hear octaves, you mustn’t hear melodies – not much of the music of these composers meant anything to me. Their music was obviously well written on the basis of their way of thinking about music, but it was a mannered finale to German Romanticism. That music left me cold.

I became a composer because I loved Stravinsky, Bach, be-bop and Coltrane. None of these composers were permissible as aesthetic preferences. I started by writing music composed on the basis of the idea of tape loops. The result of this praxis was that I was excluded, cut off from being part of the milieu. I felt very alone. When I came home from San Francisco, where I had composed It’s Gonna Rain (1965), the piece was played on a radio station in New York that had many avant-garde listeners. The switchboard at the radio station got red hot; there were hundreds of listeners who called in and shouted: “Your transmitters have broken down, your playing equipment is in pieces, see about getting it fixed!” People hadn’t the slightest understanding of what this music was all about.

That was how it was all the way up through the sixties; the academic musical world in the USA was completely infatuated with twelve-tone music; they saw my music as infantile, irrelevant, and it was described as ‘insulting’! That was why I gave so many concerts in art galleries and museums, I had friends there, for example the installation artists Richard Serra and Bruce Nauman. They invited me and Philip Glass and others to give concerts in connection with their exhibitions. Drumming (1970-71) was premiered at the Museum of Modern Art. Four Organs (1970) had its first performance at the Guggenheim Museum, Violin Phase (1967) and Pendulum Music (1968) at the Whitney Museum.

That was how it was all the way up through the sixties; the academic musical world in the USA was completely infatuated with twelve-tone music; they saw my music as infantile, irrelevant, and it was described as ‘insulting’!

Steve Reich

Slowly attitudes to my music became more subtle. After Music for 18 Musicians (1974-76) some of the academic composers began to understand that something was going on in my music. Glass had written Einstein on the Beach – understanding of this new form of expression had loosened up. The major breakthrough in fact only came when my music came to Europe. It began in 1971, when I was performed at the Théâtre de la musique in Paris and at the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts) in London. Later I came back to Europe and did Drumming at Pro Musica Nova in Bremen. The performance aroused a lot of controversy – I saw newspaper headlines like “Minimal Musik macht Furore!” and “Musik am Fließband”. It reminded me of Carl Orff and the Nazis! My music was totally misunderstood in Germany – all the same many Germans thought my music was captivating. So much so that Drumming, Six Pianos (1973) and Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices, and Organ (1973) were recorded and released in a box set on Deutsche Grammophon that is still on the market.

That helped very much to open doors for me. At that time my music was on the whole only performed by myself and my ensemble. I didn’t let others play the music, for other ensembles could only produce terrible performances. I wanted people to hear the music as it was intended, and I knew that if I didn’t do it myself, it wouldn’t be performed properly. And I didn’t want to work with a publisher. This was the situation all the way up to 1980, when the boss of Universal Edition in London decided they would publish my music. I knew this boss was serious and I let them release Piano Phase (1967), Violin Phase, Pendulum Music, Four Organs, Music for Pieces of Wood (1973) and Clapping Music (1972).

The problem was that Universal Edition in London is a slave of Universal Edition in Vienna, who weren’t interested in American music, they were interested in German music. I had no need of German music, and they had no need of me, so thank goodness something crucial happened in 1987, when I began working with Boosey & Hawkes. In terms of collaborators it was the best decision I made in my whole life. The next-best decision was the collaboration with Nonesuch Records. The people I started working with at Boosey and at Nonesuch were the same as I work with today. They’re people who know exactly what I’m about, and they know how to realize my artistic ambitions.”

– When one talks to Philip Glass, he tells a story that has presented the same challenges as you have had.

“Talk to him about that; when you talk to me, we talk about me. What’s your next question?”

– We could dip into electronic music, and African music, which you’ve been inspired by. Can one speak of different phases with different sources of inspiration?

“No. it isn’t about different phases, but about simple influence. What has helped to create the music I’ve written? Part of the answer lies in the creation of tape loops, another part in listening to John Coltrane, who played for half an hour on the note E. That was revolutionary, and it influenced everyone. There’s a guy called Junior Walker, who came from Motown, and did a number with the title Shotgun, which repeated a bass figure endlessly. That was fantastic. I listened to recordings of African drumming. At that time I didn’t know how this music was created, but I knew that there was a rhythmic complexity that was far ahead of anything we knew. I listened to Balinese gamelan music, where you can hear the fantastic interlocking patterns.

Steve Reich. Photo: Klaus Holsting.

Two books influenced me more than anything else, because in these I could see the notation. The first is Studies in African Music by A.M. Jones (published in 1955). The book is in two volumes, and the first volume is complete scores of African music. How could this be done? The author invited a drummer from Ghana to London, who played the music. Jones made a graphic representation of the music, because he knew that a traditional notation of the music wouldn’t be an adequate representation at all. He later transcribed the graphic version into a traditional score and that way he was able to create the world’s first accurate written-down West African drum music.

The other book is Music in Bali by Colin Mcphee, who himself played gamelan on Bali in the 1930s. He wrote down every single musician’s melodic and rhythmic patterns. African and Balinese music are two quite different forms of expression, but both had a strong influence on me.”

– In what way?

“Well, I worked with tape loops at that time. The analogy between African music and my tape loops, which were of different lengths but accurately synchronized, was noticeable. African music often goes in what we would call 12/8 time. Some patterns are divided into fours, others into threes and others again into sixes. All these layers take place simultaneously, and the basic beats in these layers don’t converge. You wonder where the basic beat is. Drum 1 has it here, Drum 2 has it there, and all of them occupy their musical position in relation to the leading person (‘the timekeeper’). This was a brand new way of making music. Another brand new idea was that instead of having a conductor the leading drummer plays a particular pattern; first he starts typically with a simple eighth rhythm that means: “Get ready, a new pattern is coming soon and you must all play adequately in terms of that.” In Balinese music there are two leading drum­mers who sit on the floor. They can do accelerando, decelerando, and they can literally conduct the tempo in the ensemble while they play. Everyone listens to these two and follows their beats.

I used all this in the work Music for 18 Musicians, where I wanted to write a piece for 18 musicians but without a conductor. My idea was that as a musician you should be able to hear where the musical changes should come. The vibraphone in the work is thus modelled on both the leading drummer’s patterns in West African music and the drummers in Balinese music: each time the vibraphonist plays he says: “Get ready – a change is coming now!” and all the musicians change to a new pattern. This way the musicians can simply close their eyes and open their ears, as clear signals are given by the leading musicians. Other changes are set in motion by the bass clarinettist. The important thing is the actual attitude to playing, where this is about the chamber music attitude or the Baroque music attitude, where the dynamic changes are pretty abrupt (‘terrace dynamics’), and you don’t get these dramatic expressions where the music gradually becomes louder to reach a climax.

If I had to sum up my sources of inspiration, they would be West African drum music, Balinese gamelan music, John Coltrane, Junior Walker’s music, and I would be a heel if I didn’t admit that Terry Rileys In C (1964) made a huge impression on me – in the same way as La Monte Young meant a lot for Terry Riley, and I meant a lot for Philip Glass – everybody knows that, only Glass won’t admit that’s how it is.

– You travelled to Europe and won recognition there for the works you performed. Suddenly you just became famous?

“It wasn’t quite like that. My life has been a process of gradual development. There were certain striking events: when DG released the box with my early music, it was very much noticed. Another important time was the performance of Music for 18 Musicians, which was originally recorded for DG at a pop studio in Paris. There was a guy at DG who realized that this music wasn’t suitable for the radio medium. They had the red pop label, the yellow classical label, the orange label that presented Balinese music, music by Stockhausen and Keith Jarrett. So they wanted me to be released on the orange label. But time passed without anything happening. The music was recorded in 1976, and years went by without the music being released. But then I got a letter from the producer. He’d had a visit from ECM’s Manfred Eicher, who wanted to release the record. I wrote back: “Listen, I’m not a jazz musician!” Eicher wrote back: “I know you’re not a jazz musician, but go and meet my ECM director in New York”. I went there and Eicher’s NY representative said:

“We love your music, and we’d like to send the record to radio stations that play progressive rock music.” I said to him: “Are you serious?” A moment later I was signing a contract. The result was that Music for 18 Musicians appeared on ECM and sold over 100,000 copies in the first year. It still sells, and sales have passed 200,000 copies. For a classical CD this is very unusual. The reason for the success lay in brilliant marketing: in the stores you could find the record both in the jazz bin and the classical bin, and the music was sent out to radio stations for rock, jazz and classical music. Then came interviews, and the serious press took the music seriously.”

Steve Reich. Photo: Klaus Holsting.

– Your music is still in opposition to parts of European music that are based on a historical-philosophical tradition that goes several centuries back. European musical philosophy isn’t part of your intellectual ballast. So what is it you would like to achieve in terms of the public?

“I would like to achieve the same as Johann Sebastian Bach: to write for the honour of God and for music lovers with a view to vitalizing their spirituality. You know what? You can take Adorno and throw him straight in the dustbin. Johann Sebastian Bach said for the honour of God, and I say the same. Darmstadt – that’s sheer idiocy. Its mannerism and musical suicide at the tail end of German Romantic thinking. Over and out. Oh, Boulez was a great composer, Stockhausen was a great composer, Berio was a great composer. The rest are all these trashy composers – in ten years time we won’t even remember they’ve existed. Right now – in Germany, in large parts of Europe, in the USA and the rest of the worlds – the dominant style is created by composers like Arvo Pärt, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, John Adams, Louis Andriessen, Gija Kantjeli, John Taverner. Music by these composers dominates the planet Earth today. If you don’t believe that you can simply go along to the record stores and check the shelves, or switch on the radio, or read the periodicals, then you’ll be convinced.

John Adams has said: “The most important thing that has happened since World War II in classical music is minimalism.” It’s just as simple as it’s true.”

Boulez was a great composer, Stockhausen was a great composer, Berio was a great composer. The rest are all these trashy composers – in ten years time we won’t even remember they’ve existed.

Steve Reich

– But you don’t like people associating your music with the word minimalism.

“I’ve never cared for the term musical minimalism. Listen: you and I can travel to Paris, go along to Debussy’s grave, dig up the composer and ask him: “Excusez-moi, monsieur, est-ce que vous êtes expressioniste?” He’ll answer “Merde!” and lie down to sleep again. It isn’t interesting for a composer that some people find a label for his music. Only a Dummkopf has a manifesto! When I meet someone who says he has a manifesto, I immediately leave the room, for I know that I have to do with a Dummkopf. Manifestos are for idiots. You have no idea what’s going to happen tomor­row. You may be a dead man tomorrow. I may be a dead man tomorrow. I live in New York City, where people live who right now as we’re speaking, are maybe planning a bombing.

When I was younger I had more definite ideas of how my music should be. With age the fixed opinions have loosened up, and I trust my intuition more. Piano Phases is a very systematic piece, so why does it still work so well? Because the notes are good and right. If the notes weren’t good it would be a bad piece. Who can be bothered taking an interest in your ideas? It would just be a formal exercise with questions like “Is it twelve-tone or a repeating pattern, or what?” It’s a matter of compete indifference. The music only works if the notes are right. The music only works if it means something for you,

Das Affekt,” said Bach. He’s the greatest musical craftsman who ever lived, and he said that. He was right: if the music moves you, it’s right. That’s what music is about, don’t give me any intellectual trash, all that Adorno idiocy. Schönberg said about Adorno: “Wiesengrund can’t even write a sentence”. When Schönberg says that in his books Adorno can’t even write a sentence, then it’s serious. Adorno ran around in confusion and said: “I love Schönberg, I hate Stravinsky”. The rest is just funny words in the man’s writings that don’t mean anything. The Germans have been living in a fairytale world as far as these things go. It’s incredible. But it’s over now, and those who don’t know it’s over …. [shakes his head] – I don’t get it.”

– You talked before about intuition as more of a factor now than before. Does that mean more chords and new harmonic connections?

“Yes, exactly. Musical intuition means making musical decisions that are based on your intuition, not on a system.”

– But you need a system …

“NO. I don’t have a system and I’ve never had a system! I’ve worked with phase shifts, yes. But what sound would come out of that? I didn’t know. How quickly would it go? I didn’t know, but I had to try it out. Would there be a development into something so you experienced a shift in the music? Maybe, maybe not. I stopped using those processes in 1971. Why? Because I thought it was enough and since then I’ve never written a piece of phase music. I was tired of it. Let others do it. In other words, yes, I wrote works that people thought were based on mathematical calculations, but they weren’t. I just discovered something that musically speaking was fascinating and very intense and very focused on the rhythm.

When I was young, I was particularly interested in one key and one timbre, because it provided a better possibility of hearing the interlocking processes. If you play Piano Phase on a piano and a harpsichord it isn’t good. On two harpsichords it works fine, also on two pianos. From a purely acoustic angle it’s important to play on two of the same instruments. In You Are (Variations) (2004) there are four pianos that play with interlocking – it can only be four pianos because of this ‘zipper technique’. But there’s a world of difference harmonically between Piano Phase and You Are (Variations). I use the human voice quite differently now compared with before.

Certain things from my youth are still there, I don’t even think about them, they’re just habits. Much of what I’ve learned about writing vocal music has become very important for my later music. I write more and more vocal music. I hadn’t dreamed that vocal music would come to play an important role. The thing is that I’ve just followed my musical instincts. Stravinsky said: “A composer is like an animal. He sniffs around and when his nose tells him that there’s something good, he eats it.” That’s how a composer is. The rest is journalism.”

– The human voice, the singers and the texts give you the opportunity for example to work with political themes.

“No, not politics, but areas that interest me, like life and death. Politics are boring. Life and death are interesting.”

–So let’s say you have strong views about life and death.

“Yes, I value life very highly, and I’m in strong opposition to those who value death. [laughter]”

– But you choose texts where it can’t surprise you that the public sees them as political.

“The first text I set to music in 1981 was from the psalms of David [Tehillim for voices and ensemble, ed.]. In Desert Music (1984) I used a text by William Carlos Williams. Different Trains (1988) – one of the best pieces I’ve written – harks back to the tape pieces and talks about train journeys with Jewish children just like me. They were unlucky enough to be born in Rotterdam or Budapest and were burnt to ashes and buried somewhere in Eastern Europe.

If someone said to me: “I’d like you to write a work about the Holocaust”, I would run a mile. It would be impossible. But I wanted to do something different: I wanted to make recordings of the Governor of Virginia, who took care of me when I was a child. I wanted to make recordings of the black poet who wrote about the same trains as I did. I wanted to visit the archives that describe the Holocaust, and re-use their recordings of the Holocaust. I wanted to use that in the work. I wouldn’t change the sound or the speed in my computer. I would faithfully reproduce their story. In that sense Different Trains is the opposite of my other works: each time a new narrator comes into the soundscape there’s a new tempo and a new key. How do you realize that in a performance? The prerecorded string quartet changes to a new tempo and the live ensemble stops. They have a tacet – they have three bars to listen to the new tempo, and then they can play on. That’s how I solve compositional problems – but it has to be a solution of inspired problems.”

– You can solve certain instrumentational problems by miking the instruments.

“Wrong! I began writing for orchestra in 1987. Having 18 first violins, 16 second violins etc. etc. is poor orchestration of my music, it makes the music sound ‘woolly’ and creates an imprecise soundscape. The worst works I’ve written are Three Movements (1986) and The Four Sec­tions (1987), both works for orchestra. They both suffer from being imprecise in the sound. Johann Sebastian Bach – the greatest composer who has lived on this earth – his orchestral music sounds terrible. Why? Because as a listener you want clarity in the voices. Now I’m not Johann Sebastian Bach, but I have the same problem as he had. I write contrapuntal music that calls for clarity and transparency in the voices. And to create that I must have a reduced ensemble. I can have one violin or maybe three, but preferably no more. With You Are (Variations) you will hear my full orchestra: four pianos, three string quartets and some woodwinds. I don’t write for brass instruments any more because I no longer need them. For that I usually use percussionists; as a rule four percussionists are enough.

I don’t write for orchestra anymore, because the orchestration is bad for my music. I feel responsible, and I must orchestrate properly. It would be fine to get fat fees for rental material for orchestral works, the way John Adams does. He’s a wonderful orchestral composer: he was born in the orchestra, played clarinet in an orchestra. He’s probably the only living composer who can seriously write relevant orchestral music. Everyone else’s orchestral music will disappear and be forgotten, but John’s will survive. You have to be honest about the person you are. I’m Steve Reich, I’m not John Adams. He deals with the orchestras, I deal with the ensembles. I work with Ensemble Modern, Athelas Sinfonietta Copenhagen, Ars Nova Copenhagen, London Sinfonietta, Ictus Ensemble, Avanti! etc. etc. and my own ensemble also gets together now and then.

Steve Reich and Anders, Bergen International Festival 2014.

– So you enjoy it that it isn’t only your own ensemble that can play your music?

“If you visit my website you can see that out of the 250 or so concerts a year given of my music, my own ensemble plays only two or three concerts. So 247 concerts are played by … je ne sais quoi. Some ensembles I know, others I’ve never heard of. This makes me happier than anything else I can think of. Because if you ask “What is a successful composer?”, it’s a composer that musicians want to play and an audience wants to hear.

The advantage of getting older is that I can experience the young musicians playing my music quite effortlessly. They’ve heard my music since they were teenagers, their teachers have told them about it, and it isn’t a problem for them to play it. 25 years ago my music was seen as a practical joke: it was played awkwardly and quite impossibly in terms of my intentions. Now I can travel to Estonia and Lithuania for example and hear fantastic performances. It’s incredible.”

– And you don’t feel you’re compromising yourself by giving the public what they want to hear?

“No, I’m giving them exactly what I want them to hear. And I am – thank God – so lucky that what I want to hear is the same as the audience want to hear.”

– And it’s still new music?

“You can call it whatever you want. I’ve always written exactly what I wanted to hear. Sometimes I’ve been wrong. I have some pieces I think are bad. I’m alone in my studio – who’s going to tell me whether I’m wrong or not?”

– Where are your weak sides?

“My weak sides are that I’m a very slow writer. I have more in my recycle bin in the computer than in saved files. I can be particularly self-critical, which is good, but sometimes it can go too far. I would like to have the ability to compose faster, as some of my colleagues are able to.”

– What is your aim with composing?

“I must quote Bach again: for the honour of God and for music lovers with a view to vitalizing their spirituality.”

© Anders Beyer 2006

This article was published in Dansk Musik Tidsskrift no. 6, vol. 80.