Aug 16 2011: Minimalism and Expression: An Interview with Steve Reich (Big Issue in the North, 1998)

This interview was conducted over a long-distance telephone line between a very crummy bedsit on Sheffield’s Sharrow Vale Road and Steve Reich’s New York office on the afternoon of February 20, 1998, indicating just how strange life could get at that stage, as my days switched between benefit offices and terrible temporary jobs on random industrial estates, with occasional extensive conversations with some world-renowned artist or other thrown in to confuse matters. The occasion for the piece was a performance of Music for 18 Musicians by Reich and The London Sinfonietta at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall on March 4th, 1998, and the remit was to provide a kind of condensed overview of Reich’s work up that point, though Reich himself was rather more enlightening about his general attitudes to music and wider cultural changes than that basic brief implied: it’s a shame so little of what we discussed was reflected in the finished piece, so it’s good to find a home for the full transcript at last. Handwritten notes were taken during the phone conversation and reconstructed immediately after the call.

Wayne Burrows: I gather you’re doing Music for 18 Musicians over here, with the London Sinfonietta, which is one of your older pieces. Does this mean the Manchester performance will be more retrospective than about presenting new work?

Steve Reich: Yes. I first wrote Music for 18 Musicians in 1976 for my own ensemble, and each part in it was written specifically for the individual players within that ensemble. Because it was produced with those particular players in mind, there was never a detailed score available for other musicians to work with. It’s only because Mark Mellits has transcribed the piece that a real score exists now. So it’s a new score, but an old piece. It took about a year to complete the scoring, and was performed by the Ensemble Moderne in Germany, and by London Sinfonietta over here. It’s the first time the piece has been done by an ensemble other than my own, but there’s no new material, it’s not an adapted or altered version. It’s still Music for 18 Musicians as it was written and performed in 1976.

WB: I remember the first music of yours I heard, the ECM album featuring Octet, Music For Large Ensemble and Violin Phase. What led you to that initial exploration of phase-shifts, rhythms and repetitions?

SR: In the late sixties, through to the mid-seventies I guess, I was interested mostly in rhythm and repeating melodic patterns. I was exploring pieces where instruments would begin in unison, like if you and I both began playing the same notes on the piano, but then slip in and out of synch, like we’d start at the same point but then gradually drift apart. I guess it was really about an interest in hearing and paying attention to the minute details and textures of sound, and concentrating the listener’s attention on those details, things you can’t really hear in most concert music simply because it’s not something the Western tradition tends to focus on. I’d quote Blake and say it was a kind of “see the world in a grain of sand” approach to music, taking some minute detail and enlarging it until a became a whole new kind of picture.

WB: Some of it was quite extreme, in terms of stripping music down to essentials – things like Clapping Music, for example…

SR: Yes, but then again I think the sense of rhythm and timing those pieces instil in performers makes them very useful in fine-tuning the ear to rhythmic subtlties and gradations. I come across a lot of students who use Piano Phase as an etude for practice, and there is that precision to those pieces, they’re quite demanding to perform even though they’re compositionally very simple.

WB: Was there an interest at that point in moving against the emphasis on harmony in the Western tradition? It’s often said that rhythm is kind of ‘backgrounded’ in the Western concert music tradition, and you did work to bring it to the foreground, I suppose.

SR: What you need to remember, and I think people have forgotten this, is that when I started out as a student and started working professionally in the mid-to-late sixties, harmony was practically non-existent in new music. The composers we were influenced by and learned from, those who were the big names at the time, were people like [Karlheinz] Stockhausen, [Pierre] Boulez and [Luciano] Berio in Europe, and John Cage in America. These were people working with totally non-harmonic tones and pitches, experimenting with new forms and ways of making music. That was the tradition I guess we all had as our musical being at the time, it was part of our training, and since we didn’t hear much new music using harmonic organisation anyway, we didn’t have any real reason to push consciously against it.

WB: You’re also often credited as a precursor of sampling because of your use of tape-collage, phasing and other devices like these in work like Come Out and It’s Gonna Rain. Was there a conscious effort to innovate there?

SR: Well, I can hardly claim to be a pioneer of tape! People had been using it and experimenting with it pretty extensively since the musique concrete movement of the fifties, and people like Boulez, Stockhausen and Cage had been using tape for years, long before I even started out. I guess it wasn’t something of crucial importance to me, to be honest, it was just in the air and around at the time, a tool you could work with if you chose to. Tape was just one more texture on the palette of sounds you could use as a composer starting out at that time, I guess.

WB: So there was no especially specific reason why you came to concentrate on the areas of music you did, the rhythms, repetitions and phasings, in those early works?

SR: Well, I certainly wasn’t just interested in the rhythm or the phasing, that was only one part of the deal. With music it has to be the whole ball of wax, the whole thing, because if the music doesn’t move and engage you as a listener it’s lost. But it’s been an important aspect of music for me, and the specific reason for that I guess is because I was a drummer as a teenager, and when I got older and trained more I asked myself the question of ‘where in music is drumming the principal voice’, the lead instrument if you like, and the answer, of course, was in Africa and Indonesia.

WB: I noticed in your biographical notes it mentions you spent some time learning percussion in Ghana and performing with a Gamelan ensemble, was that an important turning point for you?

SR: Yes, I went to Ghana to study drumming with a tribe called the Ewe, but the gamelan ensemble was based here in the US. I suppose if I’m honest I didn’t get any new ideas from playing in those ensembles, but what that study did do was give me a tremendous sense of approval about the kinds of ideas I already had. It gave me permission, if you like, to pursue the things I was already interested in, and showed me that these ideas, these approaches to music I was developing and working with at the time, were all already part of the world’s musical tradition. That was very important on a personal level, but it didn’t really change the way I was working all that much.

WB: You’ve also been cited quite often as an influence in current pop music, especially on the dance music end of things, where I suppose the use of repetition is a key to the form. Do you keep up with much in those areas?

SR: Not too much, I’m afraid, but I think you’re right, there has been some interesting stuff going on there. I was in London, it must have been 7 or 8 years ago now, and someone gave me a CD by a group called The Orb, who I’d never heard of, but I listened to this track, Little Fluffy Clouds, which had a sample from something of mine on it, and, yes, I quite liked it. I also remember at a performance of Music for Mallets, Voices and Organ at the Queen Elizabeth Hall many years ago a rather odd-looking young man with very long straggly hair introduced himself to me, saying how much he’d liked my music and all, and he turned out to be Brian Eno. So I’m aware that there has been some crossover between what I’ve been doing musically and a lot of things at the pop and rock end of the spectrum, but it’s not a recent thing, it goes right back to the seventies.

WB: Is that something you’d think of as a positive or a negative development, that blurring around the cultural edges?

SR: I don’t think it’s either, I just think it means things are getting back to the way they’ve always been. If you go back into history it’s obvious that Medieval masses and all kinds of sacred music drew on folk and dance music, then recontextualised it within their own traditions. And the reverse, too, as sacred music might turn into a dance at some other stage. Bach would base a whole passage on some pop tune or bit of folk music of the Renaissance, and then the Bach tune might be adapted back into another popular tune in its turn. Many of the forms music takes, the jigs and sarabandes that have become essential to concert music, they’ll often retain the basic forms of the original dances in the work of those composers using them. Beethoven’s 6th symphony is full of folk elements and dances of the time. Bartok used Hungarian folk motifs all the time. I think even Stravinsky, however much he’d probably have tried to deny it, used components of Russian folk music and dance music in his work, as well as the jazz he more openly credited as an influence. The real change now, I think, is that we’ve been through this period of separation that’s anomalous historically. It’s only when you have people like Arnold Schoenberg erecting a wall between music and the wider culture and the traditions of a world outside itself that this split we think we’re seeing the end of really occurs. I grew up in what I guess were – in hindsight – the final years of this rather cold, formal period in music, and while I’ve been working I’ve seen that wall coming down. I don’t know, perhaps I have contributed something to that process and if so, that’s fine by me. But it’s something that was happening anyway, and was probably always going to happen, so I’d see it as a restoration rather than any kind of break with the past.

WB: I know that Philip Glass, who you’ve often been associated with, has been working and collaborating with someone from the ambient/dance scene, The Aphex Twin…

SR: Yes, Richard James is his real name, I don’t know him personally, but I do know of him.

WB: I suppose the question is whether that would be an area you’d be interested in, moving towards yourself, or at least experimenting with – some kind of serious/popular crossover working?

SR: It’s not something I think I’d want to spend a lot of time on, no, but it does kind of interest me at the margins, I guess. Richard James, The Aphex Twin, is actually doing an album of remixes of my music, though I’m not getting directly involved or collaborating with him as such. I’ve given my permission for the project to go ahead, though, and I’m interested in hearing the results. I did once write a piece with Pat Metheny, so I guess I have collaborated, but that’s really as far as I’d personally want to go in that direction.

WB: Mentioning Philip Glass a moment ago, I was slightly wary of doing so.  After all these years, do you think the term ‘Minimalism’ is still a useful or very descriptive one for the group of composers associated with it?

SR: It’s not something I really mind, to be honest, it’s just part of that historical tradition where critics give a name to something in visual art, painting and sculpture, then at a later stage someone applies it in music too. So it’s just a stylistic word given to composers, like ‘impressionism’ or ‘expressionism’. People like Debussy, Ravel and Satie were a quite diverse group, but were all ‘impressionists’. And for us it’s the same, Philip Glass, Terry Riley and myself are ‘minimalists’ in the same way, and I did give concerts in museums at one point and performed my music at shows by people from Minimalist Art like Sol LeWitt, Robert Smithson and Carl Andre. So it’s partly justified, in that way. But it’s just a useful shorthand, an adjective that journalists and critics can attatch to what you do to save themselves getting too complicated and longwinded, and as long as it isn’t seen as a restriction, as long as it remains just a shorthand for something everyone understands is in reality far more complicated, then it probably does no real harm to keep using it.

WB: One thing that strikes everyone, I think, is just how successful minimalist work has been in music. I can’t think of many examples of a style crossing so quickly from a fairly experimental avant-garde to what amounts to a mass public audience. It’s been very successful in that respect.

SR: Certainly, and in a lot of other respects as well. When you look at what gets defined as minimal, you turn up most of the dominant composers in the world today, whether it’s Arvo Part or Henryk Gorecki in East Europe, Louis Andreissen in the Netherlands, or people like Gavin Bryars and Michael Nyman in England. That’s a pretty varied track record for any musical style to have.

WB: Would you still see ‘minimalist’ music as being recognisably minimalist now? Your own seems to have become more complex over the years…

SR: Yes, I hope so, and I think ‘minimalism’ was maybe an accurate description of what the music was like up to around 1973, maybe 1974 or ’75. After that, it started to change, it evolved and all of us – certainly I did – began adding new elements. But being minimalist in some prescriptive way was never the point, it’s always been a useful term people can use to refer to a whole group of composers, some of whom are more minimalist than others, and some of whom do a lot of things that fall outside that very rough definition. I can honestly say I’ve never consciously thought about my work becoming more complex, or made any particular efforts to make it more complex. I always just did the piece and carried over whatever came from that process into the next one.

WB: You’ve also been making more visual theatre work lately, using video and music together, is that right?

SR: Yes. The Cave.

WB: Is that a direction you’re planning to continue with or a one-off project?

SR: It’s an ongoing interest, really. I’m working on my second – inverted commas – ‘opera’ now. It’s called Three Tales, and the three sections are subtitled Hindenburg, about the Zeppelin and the rise of Hitler in Germany, Bikini, about the American nuclear tests in the Pacific in the 1940s and 50s, and Dolly, about the cloned sheep, genetics and all the implications of that. It’s an attempt to tell the history of the twentieth century through the development of different technologies, both as an aspect of progress, and in terms of what goes wrong with them, how those technologies affect societies and people. The Hindenburg part is almost finished now, and I’m aiming to have the whole piece done, with all three sections, for performances in the year 2001, so it’ll be a while yet before you can see the whole thing. We may do Hindenburg before then as a section of the work in progress, but that’s all still in discussion – no firm dates or plans are in place yet.

WB: Is Three Tales a direct development of the approch you took in The Cave?

SR: In the sense that I learned from that, of course, though Three Tales will be using one very large video screen instead of the five we had in The Cave. That gives a lot more flexibility on the musical and performance side. Also, when Three Tales is finished, it will be an evening-length work with singers and recorded voices, using the full range of theatrical resources.

WB: Someone I spoke to asked about the recorded voices in Different Trains, and wondered if that was an area you planned to take further and develop? I guess from what you just said, that would be a yes?

SR: I think it’s an area I’ve fairly constantly explored, really, from things like Come Out in the sixties right up to the Hindenburg piece I’ve been describing.

WB: I guess the real question would be about how the recorded voices are used as much as the presence of tape in a more general sense – for example, would you do something like Different Trains using live voices rather than recorded ones? Would it make a difference to the piece itself?

SR: Again, I have used live voices, but more often as sound, perhaps. The reason I’ve used recorded voices in Different Trains, The Cave and Hindenburg is because I wanted the historical weight of documentary material, and you really can’t do that without using tape. I wouldn’t want someone live on stage talking about the holocaust as an impersonator or a fictional character, I’d find that, personally, a bit morally and aesthetically dubious. So to get that historical weight, I want the actual witnesses, speaking in their own voices. The Cave, for instance, had the voices of real Americans and Israelis discussing Biblical figures like Abraham, Isaac and Ishmael, while in Hindenburg I’m using things like the radio broadcast reporting the airship crash, tapes of surviving witnesses who saw the Hindenburg flying overhead, who lived through and witnessed Hitler’s assumption of leadership in Germany at that time. The big difference between Different Trains and Hindenburg is that in Different Trains I was writing the music to fit the exact nuances of the recorded speech. How people spoke was exactly how I wrote. I was using the voices as documentary, for their content and truth-value if you like, so the musical considerations had to be accomodated around that. The new work has a more rhythmic-musical approach to the voices, and in the Three Tales I have been manipulating the voices much more, so perhaps the music has come first this time.

WB: Several ex-minimalists have turned to forms of visual theatre, but few have been very conventionally ‘operatic’ in their staging and presentation. I’m thinking of Glass’s work with Robert Wilson, say.

SR: Maybe not in presentation, but I think they have been ‘operatic’. I think both Philip Glass and John Adams are both staging traditional operas, works where you have baritones, sopranos and counter-tenors singing within a particular narrative and dramatic form. If you have Richard Nixon [Adams’ Nixon In China] or a Pharoah [Glass’s Akhanaten] singing baritone or tenor onstage, I think that pretty much defines what you’re doing as opera. For me, it’s a form rooted in European conventions of the 18th and 19th centuries and I’m not really interested in working with it – on those terms anyway – for pretty much that reason. I can enjoy it as a spectator but I don’t want to be impersonating those conventions, as I feel the result can be more like pastiche than I’m personally comfortable with. The name we first gave to The Cave to define its genre, as a kind of subtitle I guess, was ‘a documentary video musical theatre­ piece’. But then we figured that was a bit too longwinded to be very useful to anyone so ‘visual theatre’ became the short version.

WB: You’ve also worked with texts by poets like Robert Creeley and Charles Olson…

SR: Wow, that was a long time ago, way back when I was a student, and I can’t say I did Mr. Creeley or anyone else much justice at the time – which is one reason why I tried to repay the debt by using the work of Creeley’s teacher, the good doctor [William Carlos] Williams, in The Desert Music, where I figured it might get a better treatment.

WB: It seemed to indicate that the interest in a fusion of music and text, sound, voices and documentary speech you’ve been describing, was always there and might be seen to lead inevitably to poetry at some stage?

SR: It certainly does, but that would hardly be a new development, except maybe for me personally. Composers have been using poetry for as long as there’s been composition, and people like John Adams are still working in that area now in his settings of poems by Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman. For myself, I take each piece as it comes and see how it develops, so while I’ve got no current plans to do any more work with texts by people like William Carlos Williams, who knows? Another project might well bring that idea back to the surface again.

WB: I suppose we need to draw things to a close, so I wanted to quote something to you, where you spoke out against self-expression and talked – as a performer at least – about “subjugating yourself to the music” and trying to “set aside individual thoughts and feelings to focus on the musical process”. Do you still believe that?

SR: Well, I think I said that back in 1968, and a lot’s changed both in the world and for me personally since then. I’ve never believed in writing manifestos, and I don’t want to be seen as marching in lockstep with something I said five or ten years ago, never mind three decades ago.

WB: I suppose I’m asking a more general question, really, about emotional engagement and the processes of producing music.

SR: Which that comment raises, yes, fair enough. And I guess I do still see connections with my past, my early work, and some people prefer my past work to what I’m doing now, so it’s kind of hard for me to say how people engage with it. I was talking about performance there, and I guess because the pieces I compose have changed, the experience of playing them has changed too. As far as emotion and self-expression go, it’s probably unavoidable, and if you take a piece like Piano Phase – an early piece using a strict tempo, a quite mechanical piece in some ways – then imagine two different performers playing it, you inevitably end up with two very different sensibilities in there, two new pieces of music created out of that one score. Listening to a score by Bach played by Glenn Gould gives you a quite unique interpretation of that piece, that plays all the same notes, often at the same tempo, as any other performer, but it has also in some way become a different piece of music to the same piece played by someone else. So in that sense, while I was interested in removing subjectivity from that process back in 1968, I’m no longer convinced it’s really possible: some subjective and emotional element will get in, even if you try to write on entirely mechanistic principles. Not that I feel personally comfortable talking about the level of performance of someone like Gould because in my own terms I’m still aspiring to the thumbnails of a great performer like him.

WB: So it would probably be fair to say your work had become more ‘expressive’, whatever the word means?

SR: Yes, I think I’m working in areas now that do produce a more direct and a more overtly emotional experience – for the listener and the performer – than perhaps I did in the past.

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