I’ll be using this blog during the Covid-19 lockdown to share a few articles and interviews I’ve written through the years, starting with this interview with composer Steve Reich commissioned by Clash Magazine in October 2006, which marked the release of a new retrospective collection and remix collection at the time. A shorter version was published in the mag – this is the full unedited version.
Popular music has a well-established and oft-namechecked elite of ‘godfathers’ – artists whose visionary musical innovations have spawned legions of disciples and influenced countless records. Think David Bowie, Brian Eno, Kraftwerk and Aphex Twin. Yet there is one whose work has inspired all of them – as well as defining an entire movement of modern classical music and influencing countless electronic dance acts: Steve Reich.
The American regularly hailed as the world’s greatest living composer has transcended the pop/classical divide in a profound and unique manner during a career spanning more than 40 years – and counting. From his pioneering tape-loop pieces in the mid-60s and the minimalist ‘phasing’ technique he refined throughout the subsequent decade, he went on to deploy samplers in radical new ways in the 80s and redefine the possibilities of opera in the 90s. To mark Reich’s 70th birthday, a major programme of concerts is underway all over the world, and two new releases underline both sides of his music – ‘Phases: A Nonesuch Retrospective’ is a lavish 5-CD box set containing 14 of his most celebrated compositions, while ‘Reich: Remixed’ compiles 1996 reworkings of Reich music by Coldcut, Ken Ishii, Howie B and others with brand-new mixes by Alex Smoke and Four Tet.
This ability to straddle the classical and pop/dance worlds is a product of Reich’s musical background as a fan of jazz and Motown as well as classical music. From his home in New York, on the eve of a trip to the UK to perform a series of concerts at London’s Barbican, he explains: “When I was 14 I discovered Charlie Parker and Miles Davis at the same time as I discovered Bach and Stravinsky. And I started going down to Birdland, which was THE jazz club in the 1950s, to hear Miles Davis, Kenny Clarke, Horace Silver and all those people. And when I went to California to study with Luciano Berio, every time John Coltrane was in town I went to hear him – I must have heard him play live in the mid-1960s about 50-60 times. Cut to 1973 and my ensemble is playing a concert in Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, and at the end of the concert a guy comes up, with long hair and lipstick and says, ‘How do you do, I’m Brian Eno.’ Then in 1976 we give the European premiere of ‘Music For 18 Musicians’ in Berlin and David Bowie’s there – perhaps ‘Wailing Wall’ shows some influence of that.
“Now cut to 1992 and I’m London being interviewed and they ask me what I think of The Orb. And they give me a copy of ‘Little Fluffy Clouds’. I take it home and hear about 30 seconds of ‘Electric Counterpoint’, the piece I wrote for Pat Metheny. And I think, ‘Wow, these people don’t just like what I do, they take what I do.’ But I didn’t sue them – I just saw it as another testimony to the fact that people who weren’t even born back in 1965 and 1966, when I did ‘It’s Gonna Rain’ and ‘Come Out’, are still finding something of interest in my music today, and that makes me feel good. When I write music I want people to hear it, I want people to love it, and I want people to get something out of it. And if those people are musicians – musicians who weren’t even born when I did the music they’re listening to – that makes me feel like I’m being useful to people.” This is a remarkably open-minded and generous approach to the issue of artists sampling your work, I tell him. But he counters: “Well, you know, I didn’t sue The Orb, but when ‘Reich Remixed’ first came out in 1996 I took the royalties, so everything comes full circle in the end.”
Reich’s work has consistently embraced new technology – from tape loops in the 1960s to electronic samplers in the 1980s and even video sampling in the 1990s with his ‘musical theatre’ pieces such as ‘The Cave’. But he insists: “I’m absolutely committed to live music and live players. As a matter of fact when I did the early pieces ‘It’s Gonna Rain’ and ‘Come Out’ [in which two copies of the same piece of tape containing recorded speech drift slowly, hypnotically out of sync], I felt two things. On the one hand I thought, ‘This is fanastic, what a technique, what a result, what great pieces’; but on the other hand I thought, ‘Am I going to end up like a mad scientist, locked in a laboratory for the rest of my life making tape?’
“Because people couldn’t perform this, it seemed to me – windscreen wipers can do this, or warning bells on a railroad crossing can do this, but people can’t do this. But then I went back and said, ‘I’m going to be the second tape recorder.’ And I went and made a basic recording of the pattern that became the opening pattern in ‘Piano Phase’, and sat down at the piano, closed my eyes, joined the tape recorder in unison, and tried to move slowly one 1/16th note ahead of the tape – and wow, I could do it. Then later I joined a friend of mine and we did it together on two pianos, and it was like, hey Ma, no tape! Then I thought, ‘Now I can really make music for musicians, taking an idea that came from tape recorders.’ And what’s more, when you do it live, it isn’t like you’re a machine – quite the contrary. You have to meditate – you have to close your eyes and listen extremely carefully so that you can move ever so slowly ahead of the other person or jumping into empty spaces ahead. So here’s how an idea starting with machines can lead to a new kind of instrumental music.”
While he may no longer have any interest in composing purely electronic music, the 70-year-old is not averse to using computers as an aid to composition, as he explains: “I essentially still work by putting notes on paper, whereas people like Coldcut work by manipulating recordings with computers. But I do actually use Sibelius software every day for notation. And I also use Reason on a PowerBook – so I can be on a plane with a pair of headphones, and I can hear what I’m composing. It’s incredibly helpful, and that is entirely how I work now. I work out things at the piano in terms of pitches and notes, then I go over to the computer and back again. I actually get a modicum of exercise that way, going back and forth.”
The techno-savvy septuagenarian picked the winning entry for a recent BBC Radio 1 remix contest – Ruoho Ruotsi’s ‘Pulse Section Dub Remix’ of ‘Music For 18 Musicians’, which appears on the latest instalment of ‘Reich: Remixed’ – and takes a keen interest in electronic dance music, though he admits: “I couldn’t tell you the names of the producers and DJs I like.” He’s also fascinated by the convergence between modern classical and avant-garde electronica, and reveals: “I have a place in Vermont, which is a six-hour drive from New York, and I often pass through a place called Amherst in Massachusetts which has a very strong public radio station which will very often play extended pieces of electronica. I remember one time I drove into range of the station and this piece of music faded in and it went on and on until I passed out of range and it faded out again. I never found out who did it or what it was but they were doing something that really begins to show how close avant-garde electronica and classical/‘new music’ has become.
“Of course there are people younger than me who have moved even more in that direction – Michael Gordon, a good friend of mine and a composer I admire enormously in the Bang On a Can group, is constantly using electric guitars, electric basses and samples as everyday ingredients in his music, and he’s not the only one. Of course once you start working with notation you’re working with different kinds of musicians, but there is increasing similarity and overlap between the actual sounds of certain avant-garde pop stuff and the ‘new music’ world. How that will proceed, who knows?”
After his experiments with video in his musical theatre piece ‘The Cave’ (1990) and the opera ‘Three Tales’ (2002) – both collaborations with his wife, the video artist Beryl Korot – Reich has returned to composing for instruments and voices once again. He explains: “I’m currently in an extended period of writing ‘music’ music: ‘You Are (Variations)’, ‘Music for Vibes, Pianos and Strings’ and the newest piece, ‘Daniel Variations’, which fuses text from the Book of Daniel and the words of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter who was murdered by Islamic fanatics in Pakistan in 2002. You have to keep your energy going – it’s very important in any field – and so I’m taking an extended break from work with samples and video, but it by no means means that I’m through with it. I’m sure that if I’m still able to function, and I’m in good health, I’ll return to it.”
Since 1988’s ‘Different Trains’, which contained speech recordings of Holocaust survivors alongside memories of his own childhood train journeys, Reich has explored his Jewish heritage in his work, with Biblical text used as source material in both ‘The Cave’ and ‘Daniel Variations’. He notes: “One of my favourite composers is Arvo Part, and he basically only writes music for the church. He’s a very devout Eastern Orthodox Catholic; and of course Philip Glass is involved in Buddhism and wrote ‘Satyagraha’, about Ghandi. So even though we live in a very secular age, some of the most interesting composers around are in fact religious people who are writing music that has to do with religion in some shape or form, and yes, I’m one of them. ‘Daniel Variations’ mixes a Biblical text with a contemporary text, about a very contemporary reality, which is unfortunately with us all to much.”
At this landmark point in his career, having changed the world’s musical landscape forever, it’s clear that Reich still has much that he wishes to pursue, from his religious and cultural heritage to contemporary political events. He adds: “Music is an oceanic endeavour, and whatever I’ve done I realise there are so many things that I still want to do. I just do the best I can – but whatever I accomplish before I’m gone, it’ll be no more than a scratch on the surface.”