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Tradition reseen; Composer Steve Reich

Steve Reich is among the dominant figures of today's most popular and influential "New Music." He and his ensemble have been cheered at Carnegie Hall, praised by major critics, and recorded by prestigious labels. In the meanwhile, his work has continued to evolve, and controversy over his techniques has remained active.m

Along with such kindred composer as Philip Glass, Terry Riley, and LaMonte Young, Reich began his career in a "minimalist" vein. One early piece, "Four Organs," took all its notes from a single chord played over and over; another planned composition, "Slow-Motion Sound," couldn't be played at all because the necessary technology didn't exist. Over the years he has moved away from tape and electronic music, preferring to work exclusively with acoustical instruments and vocalists. His pieces have also become more dense in structure and more lavish in instrumentation. His interest in pulsing rhythms and sensuous timbres has earned great popularity for his compositions, even among listeners not schooled in classical tradition. Non-Western influences have played a strong part in his development as a composer, as has his own past experience as a listener, a student of the humanities -- he almost chose graduate studies in philosophy instead of composing -- and a professional jazz drummer. He spoke with Monitor critic David Sterritt in the Manhattan loft where he works and lives.m

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Your work has gathered a lot of momentum lately, in terms of popularity. Are you concerned with the widespread acceptance of your music?

Yes, I am. I believe that music does not exist in a vacuum. One mode of feedback I rely on most is the popular, naive reaction. No offense intended, but a critic is often politically biased, for or against a composer. A review may virtually exist before the critic even attends the concert! So the public reaction can be a better weather vane of the music's basic health.

Why has your music flourished so well in the past few years?

the reasons are probably simple. The music has a steady pulse, and it uses tonal materials. You can whistle fragments of a tune, and the general patterns will stay in your head. It wasn't written to be accessible; it was written because that's the way I am. But this turns out to be accessible!

How does this contrast with other contemporary music?

A lot of music by people like Boulez, Cage, and Stockhausen was not rhythmical, not tonal. It was quite difficult to get a handle on what was going on. New Music was a kind of bitter pill -- you had to take your culture with your cod-liver oil. My work, and that of Glass and Riley, comes as a breath of fresh air to the New Music world. A listener can come because he wants to come, and enjoy it. You can like some pieces, and not like others.

Is this a major new trend?

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I feel there is definitely a movement in the music community at large -- no so much toward my style, but toward working with traditional musical material. Sometimes this is called the New Romanticism or the New Classicism, though this doesn't describe what I'm doing. Some of this work may not be very important. But the basic feeling is very healthy. It's a feeling of moving back -- away from a recondite and isolated position, toward a more mainstream approach. It's a matter of working within an accessible musical tradition, whether this purely Western or influenced by non- Western sources.

Many of your pieces are based on strict musical procedures that are clearly audible in the music itself. You even wrote an essay called "Music as a Gradual Process," expressing your enthusiasm for slow and steady musical development that allows the listener to detect every nuance. How did this interest come about?

I wrote that essay in 1968, when there was a lot of interest in "Chance techniques" and free improvisation, as opposed to structure. If you did anything structured, you were regarded as a kind o fascist. It was almost un-American to write composed music!

I felt this was basically wrong and unfair.I also felt it would inhuman to ask someone to give up a lifetime's experience in playing music that wasm written , not to mention lopping off several hundred years of considerable importance. So I made a point of saying that the musical process should be perceptible. It was a personal statement, in distinction to people like John Cage -- who used nonmusical devices to make music, perhaps with philosophical overtones, although this isn't such a concern anymore.

In seeking to avoid chance elements, you might have stayed with electronic music, where you can have total control over every detail. Why do you work with live musicians, instead?

Let's say you're playing a piece of traditional music, like a Beethoven concerto. No matter how careful the conductor is, no matter how good the musicians are, there are going to be imperfections in tuning, variations in tempo, and changes of nuance from one performance to the next. But those are what give the work its life and its character!

What about the possibilities offered by music synthesizers?

If I really wanted my work perfect, I would synthesize it. But there are two reasons I don't. first, I don't like the sound of synthesizers. Second, here's whym i don't like it. Take a synthesized tone, run it into an oscilloscope, and you'll see a steady wave form on the screen. But ask a violinist to play the same note similarly -- with no vibrato and no inflection whatsoever -- and you see the tone on the oscilloscope dancing and jumping all over the place! Now go into the room blindfolded. In about three seconds you can hearm and feelm that it's live music. It's that microvariation in a "perfect" ensemble that gives the music its life. Also, there are the incredible complexities in the human voice. Even when you're working in a "controlled" structure, the material itself is so vibrant, and so beyond your control, that a tension exists.

So I don't feel it's necessary to seek out the aleatory, or "chance," element. I feel this is a part of life. Human control is over a certain domain , and to go further than that is demonic and inhuman. Then again, I'd rather not relinquish control, either. There's a balancem in the basic thrust of Western music, and I agree with this. I'm willing to try to continue it.

This reminds me of a conversation I had with Michael snow, the experimental filmmaker. I asked him about the small technical imperfections in celebrated works like "Wavelength" and "Back-and-Forth." He said these gave the films their character -- a totally smooth zoom shot is less "human" than a zoom with little lurches and hesitations, which give evidence of the hand guiding the shot.

Michael Snow is a good friend, and "Wavelength" is as fine a film as has ever been shown. I agree all the way.

Still, your work tends to be precise, even rigorous. Is it as satisfying to play as more traditional music?

It's different from playing the piano solo in a romantic concerto, but it's not that different from playing baroque music, which is also precisely notated. If it weren't satisfying to play, why should the same musicians work with me for 10 or 15 years?

It is repetitious kind of music, though.

Yes. But the only time it's difficult to play is the rare occurrence when we're not having a good performance. Repetition is only a bore when you're not "on." When we arem "on," I literary feel energy flowing up my arms. And I feel full of energy after a performance -- so much that it's difficult to sleep.

Is performance "self-expression"?

No, not for me. But it's incredibly enjoyable. For me, performance is playing the music,m whatever the music may be. And when it's mine, I want all the musicians to love playing it.

How did your tastes develop? How does your work relate to other musical trends, past and present?

Tradition is the key word. I'm an American, not a Europe. Therefore I live in a racially and religiously mixed society. And that's very valuable -- it makes us off from more homogenous societies.For example, jazz is obviously a deritative of black culture. Yet for anyone not ot listen to jazz in America is like being a cultural ostrich, with your ears in the sand.

As a child, I heard Beethoven and Wagner and Schubert, but none of it made a great impression on me. I also took piano lessons, but it was the middle-class John Thompson-type course, where you did watered-down versions of Mozart and Haydn. What really made a dent on me was at the age of 14, when I heard -- within a few months -- the Brandenburg concertos of Bach, "The rite of Spring" by Stravinsky, and the jazz of Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. that whole family of music had an enormous influence on me: baroque music, Stravinsky's and that of Bartok shortly thereafter, and jazz from sound 1950 up to the end of John Coltrane's life.

I decided then and there to study drums. And to this day, my tastes are a combination of these influences -- tonal music with a steady pulse and a certain vitality.

Did you continue to listen to a lot of jazz when you were heavily involved in classical studies?

Yes. While I studied privately, and when I was at Juilliard between 1958 and 1961, I went to jazz clubs all the time. I loved Coltrane's modal period, when he did "My Favorite Things" and pieces like that. It was just two chords, basically, and that drew me like a magnet. it's very full-blown, very sophisticated music based on a very limited harmonic vocabulary. But the jazz that followed Coltrane went in another direction, in which I had no interest whatever -- music that really doesn't have a tonal base. Ornette Coleman, and so forth. I admire it, but I don't care for it.

How about rock-and-roll? Your most famous colleague, Philip Glass, has demonstrated a strong interest in rock. And rock might be called a stepchild of jazz.

I never became that involved with rock-and- roll, because it happened later on.It was an interesting sociological phenomenon, and I liked a couple of tunes by the Motown groups and very early Bob Dylan -- "Maggie's Farm" -- but since that time I've had minimal contact with rock-and-roll.

So you missed rhythm and blues in the '50s?

Yes. I was into Charlie Parker, so I had no use for the likes of Chuck Berry!

How about your frequent use of amplification? Are you reaching for the sense of presence and volume often associated with jazz?

The use of amplification in some of the pieces is not to make the music louder, but to create certain balances that would be impossible otherwise. for example, if you play piano in the upper register, and a xylophone at the same time, the xylophone will completely obliterate the piano. By amplifying the piano, you can create a balance between them. Then, too, though a piece like the Octet can be played acoustically, I have amplified it to help it hold its own on a program of much larger works, in a large place like Carnegie Hall.

Also, mixing all the instruments through one source will make them blend even more. I'm not aiming at a separation of sources.I'm aiming at a sort of glorious monophonic sound, putting everything together. . . .

Besides such Western influences as baroque and jazz, non-Western music has also played a large part in your work.

Yes, I heard African music for years, on recordings. I admired it, and it swung, and it was very exciting. But I had no idea how it was put together, and back in the '50s I had no serious idea how I could find out. Also, I had heard Balinese gamelanm music, which I thought was unbelievably beautiful.

Eventually I was able to study these musics, through books and teachers and correspondence, and I traveled to Africa for some firsthand experience. But I had studied drums long before I heard an African drummer, and I had a predisposition to African music long before I took a trip there. Going to Africa was more like an enormous pat on the back -- a confirmation of directions I had been travelling in for some time. It was like a seal of approval to some basic instincts I had. It was thrilling to go to a culture where the "art music ," the religious music, the most seriousm was made with percussion, was acoustical, was organized primarily on a harmonic basis, and swung!

Have there been any other major influences on your work?

Yes, after a while, I started thinking about the fact that I'm not Balinese or African. I'm Jewish. So I became interested in my own backyard. From a personal and musicological standpoint, I became curious to pursue my own ethnicity, which is Western and non- Western at the same time. I studied cantillation, and even learned Hebrew at age 37.

All these influences notwithstanding, your music always has a sound all its own.

I hope so. If I use materials found in Bartok, it doesn't soundm like Bartok, any more than my other music sounds African or Balinese. I would like to learn from the structures of these sources, without imitating their sound. Some composers do borrow directly -- for example, by putting a sitar in a rock band. But I don't think this is the best way to use non-western music.

In one of your essays, you call this "the old exoticism trip."

Yes, and I don't like it very much. After all, sounds are very personal and ethnic. They're things you grow up with. I grew up with the piano scale in my head, and playing in the "cracks" doesn't come naturally. Most non- Western scales are really foreign to us.

They're exotic and attractive, and i feel a sort of reverential, hands-off attitude toward them. Ultimately, scales and instruments come out of a certain place and a certain time, and have their own way to go. That's why I feel most at home with a percussion instrument I buy on 48th Street. I like to know it was made in Chicago and is tuned to the piano scale, and it's mine, and I can do what I want with it!

Still, you have gone into fairly unusual territory at times, particularly in your early tape pieces.

What got me into tape was an interest in working with speech. I had an interest in American poetry during the 1950s -- especially william Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Robert Creeley, and Charles Olson. This group of poets drew their inspiration largely from American speech rhythms, which have a broken , irregular quality. i tried setting their poems to music, but it was unsuccessful: it robbed them of exactly thaquired by quoting phrases of jargon or slang or informal speech.

Taped opened up the possibility of taking "found objects" of speech and using them as the basis -- the musical subject -- of the piece. Later, I became fascinated with the idea of changing the synchronization of two pieces of tape, creating new patterns through the changing "phase relationships" of the sounds. Later I carried this idea into live music, which I much prefer.

Today your work is a great amalgamation of the ideas we've talked about, and a few others, besides, Journalists and critics have come up with various terms to describe your music -- which is often linked with that of Philip Glass and Terry riley -- but I find most of them unsatisfactory. Do you have a name for your work or your style?

No. In fact, I don't know of any composer who did. True, Schoenberg wanted to call his music "pantonal," but everyone else called it "atonal" or "12-tone."

Nor do I wish to name my music. After all, it keeps changing. I've seen labels come and go. The one that strikes me as particularly absurd, though, is "trance music." This is the most unrealistic and sensational, in the cheap sense. There's no intent on my part to create anything like a trance. A lulling into unconsciousness would be the worst possible result. What I hope my music summons up is morem attention to detail. . . . A listener will listen the way he wants to, but if you ask me what an ideal listener is, I'll say someone who's as wide awake as possible!

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