Questions from Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker & Answers from Steve Reich

ATDK: I feel that there is a similarity between your work and mine. One could say that we  both -especially at the beginning of our careers- used very extreme processes, like the early phase shifting pieces which I used in Fase, four movementes to the music of Steve Reich. Processes that are almost like algorithms! Twenty-five years later, our work has become more fluent. We have reached multiplicity and heterogeneity. But for my part, I feel that I accomplished this by expanding polyphony: more layers, more voices, more superimposed constraints – like in Rain. For you, I think it is partially different: the narrative aspect of the music played an important role in untying you from such processes. When I listen to City Life, for example, it sounds like a “symphonic poem”. Your music tells stories now. Do you agree with this interpretation?


SR: You’re right about our early work. We both started with extreme forms of organization that focused on one aspect of music or dance to show how that one aspect could create a whole work. In my case, the early phase pieces like Piano Phase and Violin Phase were based on slight changes in rhythmic relationship while pitch stayed constant (in Violin Phase) or changed slightly only after several minutes (in Piano Phase). Timbre never changed as only identical instruments were playing.  As for my later work, starting with Music for 18 Musicians.  I would say that all of it changes at a faster pace than the early work, though still more slowly than in most classical music. Beyond rate of change,  it depends very largely on whether you look at my vocal pieces  like Tehillim, The Desert Music, Proverb, You Are (Variations) and Daniel Variations or instrumental pieces like Six Marimbas, Eight Lines, Sextet, the four Counterpoint pieces, the Orchestral pieces, Triple Quartet, Variations for Vibes, Pianos and Strings or Double Sextet. In the vocal pieces no stories are told, but there is certainly subject matter though always treated somewhat abstractly. There is yet a third category of pieces that use pre-recorded voices and sounds of life around us, including machines. These pieces would include Different Trains (which began my return to pre-recorded voices from Its Gonna Rain and Come Out), The Cave, City Life and Three Tales. Again, no stories are ever told, but real documentary subject matter is talked about with differing implications the audience must sort out for themselves. The essence of these pieces is that they are rooted in documentary material.


ATDK: At the beginning of your career, you were an underground composer and kind of a rebel. Today we get the impression that things are different, you are calmer. You explore the world in depth, but you avoid high drama and scandal. However, it is crystal clear that you will never write music that is merely made to entertain and that takes a just for fun approach, creating a world that is not yours. What would you call that? More precisely, what do you refuse when you are sitting in front of your music sheet? Do you think that the aesthetic aspect influences morals? When do you say no?


SR: Back in the 1960s I was known mostly by other artists who were generally painters, sculptors, choreographers and film makers. I was, in that respect, underground. I never set out be a rebel. I just did what I really wanted to do musically knowing full well that most of the musical establishment would dismiss it and dislike it since they were totally absorbed in serial or aleatoric music that forbade repetition, periodic rhythm and tonality of any sort. As to what I would call what I do, I have no name for it other than  ‘music’. As to what I refuse while sitting in front of my music sheet,  I refuse anything that does not seem to work musically and my ear is the final judge. While composing, I am constantly rejecting material and trying to improve the piece. When I’m done, I’m done and rarely change anything. As to aesthetics and morals I believe they are essentially not connected – though we dearly, naively,  would like them to be. We have only to think of Wagner, a Nazi and simultaneously a musical genius.


ATDK: With Tehillim we unexpectedly discovered your interest in spirituality. This appears to become more and more important to you. Yet at first sight, this seems a paradox: minimalism was a “cold school”, a renunciation of intimate expression, and the development of formal mechanisms contemplated for the sake of it. But is it really a paradox? Didn’t this rejection of the expression of the ego, the signature of minimalism, plant the seeds for mysticism? Is there a connection between forgetting yourself in the artistic process and an out-of-body experience in a state of ecstasy. Would you describe yourself as an “anti-romantic mystic”?


SR: With Tehillim (1981) my return to Judaism became apparent, but I was actively studying and beginning to practice while composing Music for 18 Musicians (1976). Different aspects of this return became clearer in  Different Trains, The Cave. Three Tales, You Are (Variations) and Daniel Variations. We clearly live in a world of secular  artists. intellectuals and major media, but interestingly we find religion alive in several significant composers today including Arvo Pärt, Gorecki, Philip Glass, Michael Gordon,  Giya Kancheli among others not to mention Igor Stravinsky (or J.S. Bach).  Music and religion seem to be intimately tied together. Every society has always had religious music. I am merely part of a long tradition that is still alive.


ATDK: You could say that authentic American music started with Ives, and took shape with Cage… But we could still hear echoes of European music in their work. With you, that is over, really over: there isn’t a drop of Vienna in your music. The cord has been cut. How do you manage without Mahler, without melancholy, without that morbid, decadent touch to which we, Europeans, are so attached? Do you secretly listen to Mahler?


SR: You speak of me cutting the tie to Vienna and that was true of me even as a student. I found myself intuitively attracted to music written before 1750 and after Debussy. The classical period I sometimes enjoyed, especially, say, Beethoven quartet 132 or the 5th Symphony but German/Austrian/ Central European music after that held out no intuitive appeal to me. I acknowledge the genius of Schubert,  Schuman,  Brahms, Mahler, Bruckner, Mahler, Sibelius, Schönberg, Berg, Webern, et al, but I prefer not to listen to their music. I am often moved to tears by Stravinsky, JS Bach, Bartok and many others from before 1750 and after Debussy, so my emotional musical life is complete without ‘romantic’ music.


ATDK: De Machaut, Stravinsky, Coltrane, those were the composers that influenced you most I read. Is that still so today and if yes, which aspects of them specifically?


SR: Machaut’s  isorhythms are of real interest to me, but my heart belongs to earlier music by Perotin at Notre Dame in Paris in the late 12th century. You are certainly right about Stravinsky and Coltrane and don’t forget Bartok, whose 4th Quartet you choreographed and that same piece inspired my own Triple Quartet.  You ask which aspects specifically: for Perotin it is the idea of taking a line of Gregorian Chant and augmenting its duration enormously so that instead of a melody it becomes a series of long drones. He (and Leonin) originate what we would call today very slow harmonic rhythm. For Stravinsky it is hard to point to specific points of influence. Suffice it to say I might not have been inspired to be a composer if I had not heard The Rite of Spring. As to Coltrane I would single out his Africa Brass album in particular. Thirty minutes on E, the low E of the double bass. Many notes, even noises become possible when the harmony is static. Don’t leave out Ghanian drumming where repeating patterns are superimposed so their downbeats do not coincide, or Balinese Gamelan where different strands of counterpoint move at drastically different speeds. Finally, with Bela Bartok I learned about the modes and canons from his Mikrokosmos. As you may know, canons are the backbone of almost everything I’ve done. Phasing is merely a small variation on canonic technique where the subject is usually short and the rhythmic  distance between voices is constantly, slowly, changing.


ATDK: You are regarded as a composer whose early career was more influenced by artists such as Sol LeWitt than by professional mainstream composers. What about now? How do you relate to the new generation of visual artists in New York?


SR: As to being influenced by my friend, the late Sol Lewitt, I finished Its Gonna Rain in San Francisco in 1965 and then moved back to New York where I finished Come Out in early 1966. I did not meet Sol until about 1968 although I saw his work before that, in late 1966. I just explained my musical influences above and they go back to my student days in the 1950s. What I found in Sol Lewitt and later in Richard Serra and the film Wavelength of Michael Snow were kindred spirits whose work all related to mine and to each other. There were things ‘in the air’ as there always are in any given historical period and that was what we shared. I have kept up some of my relationships with those artists still living, but I have not been ‘on the scene’ with newer generations of visual artists. I have noticed that even younger composers in New York do not seem to have the close relationship to their visual artist contemporaries that my generation did. I have no explanations for this.


ATDK: How do you cope with success? Do you find it hard to question yourself when everybody is watching? Do you have certain strategies to concentrate or to hide?


SR: Success can be a problem. I often joke that one can only survive if they know the magic word. The magic word is – ‘no’. I found out many years ago that I got more music composed in rural Vermont than I did in New York City. I also found I genuinely loved being surrounded by trees and birds more than cement and noise. After 30 years of only going on the streets of New York with ear plugs  I felt it was time to live outside the city. In 2006 Beryl Korot and I moved 50 miles north where we live now. I have recently been in Rome, Tokyo, and Ojai, California so I am not exactly hidden – but it is a step in that direction and it’s better for health and for composing music.


ATDK: With ‘The Cave’ you did not only take up religious and philosophical issues, you also struck a political chord. How would you evaluate that experience? Should an artist keep a certain distance from the world’s problems?


SR: I believe an artist should work with whatever material they find of intense interest. If you are not deeply involved in what you are doing, how on earth can anyone else be interested? Contrary to contemporary, temporary concerns, subject matter ultimately means absolutely nothing. If the work of art is great it will survive – regardless of its content. Take for example the hundreds of great settings of the Catholic Mass which find interested ears today among people who are neither Catholic nor even religious. Or those who know nothing whatsoever about Nordic Mythology but are swept away by Wagner’s operas. Or those who still can’t understand a word he’s singing but love Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues? These people love the music they hear. Since they love it, perhaps they will cast a glance at the Mass text, or read up on Nordic Mythology or get Dylan’s lyrics – but first the music must draw them in. Then the words, the subject matter, may follow. Finally, an artist should have no illusions about how their work will change the world. The best example I know is Picasso’s  Guernica. Guernica was a small town in Spain where Franco bombed civilians for the first time during the Spanish Civil War. Picasso was in Paris and read about it in a newspaper, hence his painting is in a kind of black and white. It is clearly one of his greatest masterpieces, but did it stop civilian bombing for a millisecond? Not exactly. What followed was Coventry, Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki and now Muslim extremist intentional bombing of civilians in Bali, New York, Kashmir, London, Madrid,  Beslan, Jerusalem, Turkey, et al. Judged as a political force Picasso is an abject and total failure. Yet his masterpiece does serve a modest purpose beyond its mastery. The name of ‘Guenrnica’ and it fate is at least remembered as a result of this great artist’s work.


This e mail exchange of Q & A was done in 2008