Antennae Up & Receiving: Steve Reich Interviewed

As the documentary Phase to Face screens in London, Leo Chadburn speaks to composer Steve Reich about his work, the strength of American musicians, Radiohead, and his evolving dialogue with pop and rock

The prospect of interviewing Steve Reich is a slightly daunting one. With a career stretching back over 45 years and an influence on contemporary music matched only by a handful of living musicians, he is not the kind of person you find yourself talking to every day. 

Reich is 75 this year. Besides festivals dedicated to his work and influence, and a hectic schedule of international premieres, this anniversary is being marked with a new documentary about his life and work, Phase to Face, by the French filmmaker Eric Darmon, who has previously made documentaries about Philip Glass and the musique concrète pioneer Pierre Henry. 

I ring Reich at home in New York. Before the interview proper has begun, he is already almost alarmingly energetic and direct: "Reich speaking, who is this? Who is this?" He is the archetype of the unstoppable New York intellectual: witty, generous with his thoughts, wide-ranging in his references. When he talks of "American musicians [possessing] an intensity and looseness" I immediately think of Reich himself. 

At the same time, he has the guardedness of someone who has considered every aspect of his art in detail. When I speak to Eric Darmon earlier in the day, he sums this up very concisely using a comparison of Reich and Philip Glass: "Philip is very open, he wants to show you everything. Steve was completely different; he’s more keen to control things."  

Perhaps it’s Reich’s early study of philosophy that informs this exploratory yet careful train of thought. It is, unfortunately, something I am unable to ask him, because our interview time is truncated by faulty technology. Reich’s fluency really begs for an interview lasting a day or so, but with his over-filled diary that seems unlikely anytime soon. 

Watching Phase to Face, I realised that this is at least the third documentary I’ve seen about you and your work, after A New Musical Language in 1991 and The South Bank Show in 2006. How do you find the experience of being followed around by a film crew?

Steve Reich: The South Bank Show didn’t do it that way, they just did one interview in my house. Well, they did shoot some footage, but – I could say this about the French crew too – when they’d set up we just sort of forgot about them. 

I thought the most interesting part of the film is the rehearsal footage. You’re obviously very hands-on in the performances of your music.

SR: Some of the footage shows me with my own ensemble [Steve Reich and Musicians]. That ensemble is now inactive. Organising the ensemble became, really, too much for me so, in 2006, I started going out alone and working with local musicians. And that’s something you see quite a bit of. You see me working with Italian musicians as a coach, and in Tokyo with the Ensemble Modern, who I regard as my ‘other’ ensemble – in fact I’m coming to London with them in August to play the Proms. 

They’re an extraordinary band.

SR: Yes, but the best thing for any composer is that people play your music and it’s a great pleasure to go to Belgium, or the UK, or Japan, or Italy and see people who are not just playing, but playing well. That’s very gratifying and if I can come and help in some small way they appreciate it and I appreciate it and that’s much more where I’m going now. 

There’s a fascinating comment you make in the film, that I’ve heard you say before, about the je ne sais quoi that American musicians bring to playing American music.

SR: I think that’s generally true. Would you want to hear Herbert von Karajan play Rhapsody in Blue? He wasn’t born to do that. Let’s put it this way, till about 1980 every European performance of my music was a disaster, almost every single time. Well, time passes, a new generation of musicians grows up listening to the recordings, their teachers have played some of my music and now they play it beautifully.  

My music is American because, well, everything you know and love comes from a certain time and a certain place and that is in the character of the music. Whether you’re thinking of Kurt Weill and The Threepenny Opera, or George Gershwin in New York or Bach in Leipzig, it’s part and parcel of what goes on; the people who are there – and the contemporary people especially – have got their antennae up and are receiving the same station, so to speak. That comes across in the nuances of the playing. It’s not a gross difference, it’s a slight difference, but American players can bring an intensity and a looseness at the same time that is just part of our national culture. 

There’s a new recording out this year of your piece The Desert Music (written in 1984) played by, I think… are they Finnish musicians?

SR: Oh, the one conducted by Kristjan Järvi? Well they do a fantastic job. It’s thrilling. Now these players, the Tonkünstler-Orchester… my guess is they’re Swiss. Or Austrian. I don’t know which to tell you the truth… 

Well, they’re from… somewhere… [Reich’s second guess was correct – the Tonkünstler-Orchester Niederösterreich are from Austria] 

SR: Wherever they are, there’s a number of young players in the orchestra and Jarvi is young and they just got it right. I think time is on my side. Time is on the side of all composers. Musicians are playing my music so much better now, because it’s been around, they grew up with it – that recording is a very good example of that. 

It’s interesting to compare the new recording with the one made in 2002 [performed by the American group Ossia, conducted by Alan Pierson]. 

SR: Ah, the ‘red record’ [the sleeve of the album is indeed red]. 

That recording seems to have an incredible energy about it. Perhaps proving what you said American musicians. 

SR: Well, that recording was done with smaller forces. I’ve asked Boosey & Hawkes [Reich’s publisher] to make this ‘ensemble version’ the primary version of the piece. What you hear on the red record is Alan Pierson’s reduction, using reduced brass and so on, and I said, ‘that’s the way the piece should be played, in general’. But I think Jarvi wanted to say, ‘no, no, no, we’re good, we can do the orchestral version’, and he did! I think, out of the two of these recordings, the ensemble one is more what I had in mind, but I’m delighted to see people disagree with me. 

There’s a scene in the 1991 documentary [A New Musical Language] where an audience member stands up in a post-concert Q&A session and asks ‘is there any room for interpretation in your music’, and now, 20 years later, it seems completely obvious that there is.

SR: Yes. You can now pick up three different recordings of The Desert Music and have three different things and that’s the way it should be. How boring, how ridiculous if they were all the same. The same thing happened with Drumming. The piece evolved over time just within my own ensemble, and now you listen to [British percussionist] Colin Currie play that piece and it’ll knock your socks off. I wish we’d played with that intensity! 

When you were here in London a few weeks ago for the Reverberations: The Influence of Steve Reich festival, I heard that you were quite critical of one of your pieces during the rehearsals. It’s quite unusual to hear a composer do that. Which are the pieces you love a little less and which are the ones you really stand by?

SR: Well, you know, any composer who believes everything he writes is a masterpiece is… Well, it’s just human, some things are better than others. 

For instance, it took me several years of writing orchestral pieces to realise that, for me, writing for the orchestra is just bad orchestration, because I don’t need 18 first violins and 16 second violins. I just need a solo violin, or perhaps three, definitely no more, because the clarity of the music demands it.  

So in 1987 I decided I am not going to spend time writing music for the orchestra ever again. Even though I’ve had some very attractive offers since, I don’t want to waste your time and mine with something that’s not my assignment, as it were. It’s clearly John Adams’ assignment. He played in an orchestra as a kid – it’s clearly his language, but it’s not mine. 

Now, the piece you were referring to is Variations for Winds, Strings and Keyboards, which I definitely think is one of my poorest pieces and also Music for a Large Ensemble – I think those two are bottom of the heap. 

I quite like those pieces…

SR: Well, you’re entitled to your opinion! And the pieces that I rate… Music for 18 Musicians, Different Trains, Tehillim, You Are (Variations), Sextet, Double Sextet, the new quartet, WTC 9/11, Drumming and some others I’m skipping – these are pieces I really stand by but, you know, I think it’s good to be realistic at all times. 

I would have liked to have seen, as part of the Barbican festival, a large-scale work performed. I would particularly like to see The Cave re-staged [Reich’s 1993 multimedia theatre piece in collaboration with his wife, the video artist Beryl Korot].

SR: Well, The Cave is difficult, because it has five screens. That’s the killer. The reason they didn’t do something like that was because they concentrated more on my music at the festival five years ago [the previous Steve Reich festival at the Barbican, Phases], and less on the influence I have, or did have. They were trying to make this festival different. Well, we argued over certain things, but I’m glad they re-did You Are (Variations). That’s a piece that’s not done enough; I think that’s one of my great pieces. Because they were concentrating on more pieces by younger composers and because it’s expensive, that’s probably why it didn’t happen. 

Your influence on other people is pretty obvious, but I wondered what your inspirations are at the moment. It was really interesting to hear your 2008 piece 2×5, which seems like the first time you’ve explicitly referenced rock and pop music (the piece is scored for a guitar-band type line-up, playing against their pre-recorded mirror image). Is that something on your radar right now? 

SR: Well, the piece that I’m just getting started on is basically a double ensemble piece, taking the idea of 2×5 and Double Sextet and combining them, so there’s a group of about 13 musicians and another 13 pre-recorded, or a large ensemble of 26 players, which would include woodwind, eight strings, four pianos, four percussion and two electric guitars and two electric basses. The London Sinfonietta will give the premiere of that in 2013 and, well, I haven’t even really started. I’m just making some sketches. One of the ideas is that you’ll have sections where you hear each part of the ensemble; you have woodwind ‘chunks’, and sections where you focus on the strings, a little bit like the idea of The Four Sections (Reich’s 1987 orchestral piece), where individual sections come and then, of course, overlap. 

The inclusion of the electric guitar and especially the two electric basses is very important. Even when Jarvi did the recording you were talking about – not The Desert Music, but the other piece [on the album], Three Movements (1986) – in the last movement, really, it doesn’t require double basses playing those parts, it requires electric bass. 

There’s enough of a history of using those instruments in classical music now, I suppose it’s become less of a big deal to include them. 

SR: That’s absolutely true. You go into a music store, what do you see in the window? Those instruments are becoming old fashioned now! You see more electronics and very few instruments at all. I mean, I did a piece with [jazz guitarist] Pat Metheny back in 1985, Electric Counterpoint

You talk in the documentary about a ‘new generation’ of players who have classical training and can also play pop or rock. Following on from 2×5, would you consider working directly with one of those New York ‘college’ bands like The National, or Vampire Weekend, or Grizzly Bear – all bands whose members trained at Columbia or the Julliard? 

SR: Well, I did get a recording from a band called Dutch Uncles playing, not using samples; they rewrote Electric Counterpoint and were playing the written version. I really got a kick out of that. I really can’t say though. My general pattern over the years has been that if I do something, I don’t do it again. Getting 2×5 played was a bit of a problem. I had a long email correspondence with Jonny Greenwood about it actually because, of course, he is a composer himself and a very, very nice guy. But what we needed was a group of people who did both [classical and pop] and, for convenience, were in one city, so we did it in New York with Bang on a Can plus Bryce [Dessner, of The National] and it’s worked out very well. Then I was in Stockholm in January and a Swedish group did it. They did their own tape part and it was fantastic, unbelievable, better than our recording. I also heard an all-live version in Rome and, as you heard, in London too. 

You’re not suggesting, though, that there was a time when Radiohead might have premiered it? 

SR: Well no, I was e-mailing back and forth with Jonny Greenwood – parenthetically, Jonny is playing his own version of Electric Counterpoint in Krakow later this year. It was just an honest exploration. I think, at the time, the idea of him playing it was an attractive idea, but I’d have had to fly over to London and the whole thing wasn’t realistic and we just threw up our hands. But the connection with Jonny Greenwood still exists. I admire him. 

There’s something you haven’t talked about much in interviews: there’s a photograph from 1970 of Bruce Nauman and Richard Serra taking part in a performance of your early piece Pendulum Music (1968). You were obviously part of the 1960s New York scene, which included both artists and musicians. Do you feel your music was informed by those artists? 

SR: Well, yes and no. For instance, Sol LeWitt, who was a very good friend until he passed away, Sol bought some of my scores in 1970 so I could have enough money to go out and buy the glockenspiels for Drumming. These people were also enormously helpful to me when I was young in just getting a venue to play in. Our early concerts with Steve Reich and Musicians were all in galleries and museums. When we first came to London we played in the Hayward Gallery during the first one-man show of Mark Rothko in the UK. So early on, it was because of personal friendships with people like Nauman and Serra and LeWitt that I ended up doing concerts in museums. This was something ‘in the air’; I wasn’t the only one doing it. It wasn’t until the mid-70s that I began playing in standard classical music venues, and clubs too sometimes. Now, every once in a great while… I played a couple years ago with Ensemble Modern at a [Gerhard] Richter show at the Ludwig Museum [Cologne]. Richter wanted Drumming inside his show. That was really nice, to recall what I did as a younger artist. Re-doing something I’d done 40, 50 years earlier. 

And this is where our interview ended. Not, I’m sorry to say, with any kind of elegant conclusion, but with the abrupt interruption of a pre-recorded error message as the transatlantic phone line went down; left hanging in mid-air, rather like the ending of one of Reich’s ethereal 1970s ensemble works, and unable to re-establish a connection. Fitting, perhaps, for someone whose restless thought processes and forward-motion creativity continue to move so swiftly from one thing to the next. 

Steve Reich: Phase to Face screens as part of Open City London Film Festival 18 June 5.10pm. Go here for details.

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today