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Friday, Oct. 20, 2006


Inventing his genres

Staff writer

'It's been insane," sighs Steve Reich, grinning as he settles down in his chair. Reich celebrated his 70th birthday earlier this month, and it's had him shuttling from New York to London and back for numerous concerts of his works. Now he is in Tokyo, where he spoke with The Japan Times, as a recipient of the Praemium Imperiale for his contribution to the arts.

News photo
Composer Steve Reich was in Tokyo this week to accept the Praemium Imperiale award for music. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

Reich's influence on modern music has been immense. Born in New York in 1936, Reich entered the musical limelight in the 1960s, rebelling against his immediate musical forebears and pioneering what later came to be known as minimalism.

Not one to be easily pinned to labels, Reich has since moved along his own idiosyncratic, genre-defying path, broadening his harmonic and instrumental scope and assimilating influences -- from Balinese gamelan, modal jazz, Ghanaian drumming, and Hebrew cantillation.

Reich's appeal has extended beyond the bounds of modern classical music. The shimmering, trance-like beauty of "Music for 18 Musicians" (1974-6) and "Electronic Counterpoint" (1987) has found a following among people of all musical tastes, and his pioneering work in audio sampling led the way for DJs and pop musicians.

That he does not shy away from the grim realities of history and politics also gives his music an added weight and currency, addressing subjects such as the Holocaust in "Different Trains" (1988), the Arab-Israeli conflict in the video documentary opera "The Cave" (1996), and most recently the murder of Wall Street journalist Daniel Pearl in the "Daniel Variations" (2006).

What are your feelings about music you composed in the 1950s and '60s?

The early pieces have a certain purity. They are maniacal, intense, and that is typical of a man who is preoccupied with one thing: making music through rhythmic change without changing pitch, without changing instrumentation. That was very revolutionary at the time.

You can view the later works as one step forward for me, but one step backward into Western tradition, mixing instruments, having clarinets, and violins, and cellos, and vibraphones. And every piece from then on is moving into the Western tradition -- something new for me -- but you can still hear the same rhythmic drive in, say, "Daniel Variations" as you can hear in "Drumming."

What was the driving force behind the shift to minimalism?

At the end of the medieval period, counterpoint gets so complicated that, all of a sudden, "I need something simple, please," and you have Monteverdi, you have simple chords and you have the birth of opera. Then you have J.S. Bach, for me the greatest composer who ever wrote, but Bach's sons are already looking at their father as, "Yes, he's a great man, but he's a little passe." They also wanted to do something simpler because he had taken the combination of harmony and counterpoint to a place that no one has ever surpassed. It was a towering achievement, but it was also the end.

Likewise, the German Romantic movement starts, let's say, after Beethoven, goes though Brahms, Wagner, Mahler, into Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, and after the war, you have Stockhausen, Boulez, Berio and John Cage picking up this tradition, and saying this is the future. But this music was driving away the audience. Nobody wanted to hear it. I respect Stockhausen, I respect Boulez, but I don't want to hear their compositions. They are the end point of something that has become so complex that we need a change. We have to say, "Basta! Take a broom and clean it up."

And if I hadn't done it, if Terry Riley, Phillip Glass, La Monte Young, Arvo Part hadn't done it, someone else would have done it, because it needed to be done, because we had reached the point of over-saturation.

I became a composer because I loved Stravinsky and Bartok, I loved J.S. Bach and I loved bebop. When I went to music school, you couldn't sound like any of that without being considered a fool. I studied with Berio, a wonderful man, very interested in jazz and lots of things, and he looked at the 12-tone music I was writing and he said to me, "If you want to write tonal music, go ahead and write tonal music." In other words, he understood that it wasn't a historical gesture; it was personal. Stravinsky said composers are like animals: They sniff around and when they find something they eat it. I was sniffing and not finding anything, so I had to invent it.

What do you think of the term "minimalism?"

This kind of music came out of America in the 1960s, it could not have come out of any other place. I can give you the reasons: Coltrane, Motown, Indian music coming via The Beatles, recordings of African drumming, recordings of Balinese gamelan, all these things were coming into America at this time, and this kind of music arose, and journalists and music historians gave it a name and that name is useful for them. But it's not useful for musicians, because if I know who I am, then I'm finished.

We could go to Paris and dig up Debussy. "Knock, knock. Excusez-moi, Monsieur, est-ce-que vous e^tes un Impressionist?" "Merde!" he'd say. In other words, my job is just to write the next piece.

You're popular with classical, jazz and pop musicians at a time when the genres seem to be moving further apart.

I was in London in 1973 playing "Music for Mallet, Instruments, Voices and Organ." After the concert, a guy comes up to me, long hair, lipstick, and says, "How do you do? I'm Brian Eno." I think, "Great." Then we go to Berlin and we play, "Music for 18 Musicians" and there's David Bowie. My reaction is: This is poetic justice. I'm the kid listening to Miles Davis when I'm 14. Now these people are sitting here listening to me, not because I'm trying to do rock -- I wasn't -- but because I am the way I am, and they found something interesting there.

Now cut to 1992, and I was in London, interviewed by one of these pop keyboard magazines, and they said, "What do you think of the Orb?" and they gave me the CD and I take it home and I hear "Electronic Counterpoint," and I think, "Wow, these people don't just like me, they steal me." But I didn't sue them.

And then in 1996, here in Japan, a young man, Hiro Nakashima, who was working at Nonesuch [record label] at the time, said, "You should have a remix record," and as a result the "Reich Remixed" album happened and all of the DJs said, "Let Steve have the royalties." Here are musicians 20, 30, 40 years younger than me. They weren't even born in 1965 when I did "It's Going To Rain" and "Come Out," but they are finding something that they are attracted to in my music. I don't know them personally, and it's wonderful that people in your own field use your music. My music is out there living a life.

Having successfully brought together disparate musical worlds yourself, why do you think so many cross-over projects are failures?

Because they are attempting to do something. Everyone grows up and has experiences and all of this comes out. [Poet] Charles Olsen said, "We don't just grow older, we stand more revealed." All the things that you love and you did, they come out, and they come naturally, they don't come out because you think, "Oh, I'm going to do jazz." When you do it self-consciously, listeners are very sensitive. They can smell someone trying to pretend.

What was your intention with "Daniel Variations"? Was it political?

It would be nice to think that it would make a difference, but to be honest with you I don't think it will make a difference at all. None! I like to give this example: Maybe one of the greatest paintings that Pablo Picasso painted was "Guernica," and "Guernica" was painted as a protest against civilian bombing. Now, as a painting it's a masterpiece. As a political gesture: a total, complete failure.

But if Picasso hadn't painted "Guernica," Guernica would be a little footnote in the history of the Spanish Civil War, and now many of us know of Guernica because Picasso painted it. So he made a memorial. Because it moved him, because he was a Spaniard, because he cared about it, he made this wonderful piece. Daniel Pearl is one of thousands of innocent victims of which my son and granddaughter -- thank God -- weren't a part. So many people killed, so many people beheaded and hidden. But if it can keep his name alive and make people think about it, it was worthwhile.

How was the premiere of "Daniel Variations"?

It went fantastically well. And the musicians loved it, and this is very important. It's wonderful to read good reviews in the newspapers, but if the musicians don't like the music, then you're finished. They decide whether your music will live or die. The thing that has meant the most to me about my 70th birthday is there are musicians, most of which I don't know, who are playing my music because they like it. And that makes me feel very, very good.

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