Steve Reich

Not Revolution But Restoration:
Composer Steve Reich Ponders the Possible in Modern Music

“Well, that’s good enough,” says Steve Reich, the world’s most influential living composer. “I can see some musical intelligence behind that. I might not view it in the same way, but sure – you’re onto something.” Reich is assessing my assessment of his music, and I guess I’ve scored a B. Or maybe he’s just being kind.

Our conversation began with what is a necessary evil for all music writers, asking the artist to classify their work. Reich doesn’t like classifications. And since he was hesitant to label himself I told him what I thought – that his music fell into three subcategories: non-representational instrumental pieces (generally defined as minimalism), more traditional choral/instrumental pieces that employ a Western dramatic arc of expression, conflict and denouement, and what I called “musical ethnography,” molding melodies out of conversational snippets, samples and tape loops.

You may not be familiar with minimalism per se, but you hear it every day. Minimalism is not exactly minimal per se. One might even assert that the music classified as minimalist is in fact maximal. Basically minimalist music is tightly structured musical patterns that repeat, and repeat, and repeat – interweaving to produce kind of an aural bath that waxes and wanes asa the patterns go in and out of sync.

This description might seem difficult, but the music is not. It’s beautiful. It takes you places. And you hear minimalism, or some adaptation of it, all day long – in ringtones, advertisements, ambient soundscapes, film soundtracks, everywhere. Minimalism is so prevalent that it’s practically a cultural dominant, yet most people can’t even name it.

Predictably, Reich is most uncomfortable with The M-Word, minimalism. This term/genre, of course, is what he’s known for.

“Well, I mean, I understand it’s useful to say minimal if you’re a journalist or music historian describing myself and [fellow composers] John Adams, Philip Glass, Terry Riley – and more and more people every day,” says Reich. “But classifying it [his music] as minimalism is like classifying French Impressionism – there are such enormous differences and it’s all classified as the same thing. The word minimalism comes from art criticism just like the term baroque comes from architecture. There was some kind of likeness.

“I think the term was first used by the British composer Michael Nyman who heard in my music some similarity to what he saw in the paintings of Frank Stella,” Reich continues. “So he took a word from painting and sculpture and applied it to music. In those days – the days of [Reich compositions] Piano Phase and Violin Phase and up to Drumming, even, I can understand why he’d say that because there was this very intense focus on musical process and even one harmony for an hour,” he laughs. “But I don’t think that comparison works for some of my other music at all. They only call it [minimalism] because I wrote it. But I understand why it’s there and it could be worse. It’s a good term for musicologists and journalists but it’s poison for a composer because it puts them in a box.”

In his over 50-year career, the 77-year-old Reich has deftly avoided such “boxing in” while pulling from a diverse template of sounds to create a music all his own. But still, the classifiers keep classifying. And since (I guess) I’m a music journalist and Stomp and Stammer is a rock mag, that’s what I’ll do now.

Reich, along with the aforementioned Glass, Riley and Adams, is a member of minimalism’s Big Four, analogous to thrash metal’s Big Four of Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth and Anthrax. Of minimalism’s Big Four, Glass is Metallica and Reich is Slayer. Sure, Glass is a lot richer and a lot more famous. But Reich is fuckin’ Slayer! This is to say that Reich’s music is better, that he is a more uncompromising artist, and that he is more influential. (OK, I think I have reached the point in this article where I really should stop dancing about architecture.)

Reich will be featured among the diverse selection of edgy and experimental acts at the prestigious Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee March 28-30. Knoxville is an easy four-hour drive from Atlanta, and the festival is well worth a weekend road trip.

“What’s impressive about Big Ears is that it’s really a big deal,” says Reich. “I mean, you’re getting all these very important people from the pop field and these great new music groups like the Signal Ensemble. They’re doing [Reich’s signature piece] Music for 18 Musicians which is a big piece. I was just hanging out with them last night. They’re very close friends – young musicians I really admire who really understand my music. And with festivals, unless they’re doing something horrible, if the promoters invite me and treat me well and pay me a decent fee, I tend to go. So I’d have to be crazy not to go.”

Reich’s most recently released composition, WTC 9/11 (Nonesuch Records), is more or less the third part of a triptych that began with 1988’s Different Trains and continued in 1995’s City Life. All three compositions use spoken word samples – both as rhythmic elements and as templates for musical phrases that follow similar cadences.

Always the innovator, Reich’s sonic experimentation with spoken source material in tape loops (1965’s It’s Gonna Rain, 1966’s Come Out) predated hip-hop sampling by decades. But before WTC 9/11, Reich had abandoned sampling. “I was at a point where I thought if I heard one more sample, I was gonna get sick.

“For seven years [after 9/11] I did nothing but instrumental vocal music,” says Reich. “It wasn’t until 2009 I got a call from David Harrington from the Kronos Quartet, a very old friend who I have enormous respect and affection for. And he said, ‘Steve, you’ve gotta write the third piece [in connection with Different Trains and City Life]’ and I said, ‘David, for you, anything.’ But I had no idea what I was going to do. And then it occurred to me – I have unfinished business. But I hadn’t figured out how to do it.”

This is when Reich realized that letting the voices of people who were directly involved in the tragedy (by using taped snippets from air traffic controllers and the FDNY) would work best for such a grave and important work.

“It became clear to me to go to these people who were directly involved – people who could speak with authority and experience and whose voices carried the fact of the matter. You could hear the courage and the truth and the conviction in those voices.”

However you classify it. The power and influence of Reich’s music is undeniable. Once thought to be at the very edge of the avant-garde, Reich’s music is surprisingly warm and accessible. Yes, Reich’s early (minimal) works are maddeningly repetitive – if you’re expecting verse/chorus/verse structure, that is. Curiously, Reich asserts that his 1970s minimalist compositions were in fact something of a return to conventionality.

“What I was doing at the time was a complete break – a very healthy break. It was not revolution but restoration. The modern music world of the late ‘50s into the ’70s was dominated by Webern and Schoenberg, leading to Stockhausen and even John Cage. Basically there was no melody that anyone could whistle, there was no harmony to let you know where you were tonally at all, and there was no rhythm you could tap your foot to at all. And if you used any of those things, you were considered a fool and you were laughed at. And if you think I’m exaggerating, well, think about the titan of the age, Igor Stravinsky. Even he felt the pull of this.

“So I knew what I was doing was not part of that. German romanticism was basically dead. It just became too complicated. There were some great composers, but they were off in a dark corner of a mannerist, end-of-the-line kind of music. There’s a place for that – but it wasn’t my place. I grew up listening to Johann Sebastian Bach, Igor Stravinsky and bebop! I had to incorporate that into my music or, well, what’s the point?

“I did realize that we [the composers classified as minimalist] were taking a step – not as revolution but as restoration – of bringing back popular sources, bringing back some kind of harmonic orientation. So I felt, well, this is returning to solid ground. But I did not foresee the kind of success, influence and enthusiasm that this music would spread worldwide.

“Maybe the greatest pleasure that I have as a composer is knowing that my music is being played all over the world – not every day of the week, but on most days,” he laughs. “So, as I go around the world now I coach, sometimes I sit in, I speak with students, and basically I just marvel that these kids are playing my music – and that they play it better than we did!”

Photo by Wonge Bergmann.