Interview with Steve Reich
by Jonathan Cott
JC: I’d like to ask you about several basic elements in your musical thought that manifest themselves in your works. And the first of these is pulsation. According to the poet William Blake, all great events start with “the pulsation of an artery.” So do the events of your musical compositions.
SR: It’s hard to imagine pulsation being the least bit out of the ordinary in music. But in the academic world that I studied in from 1957 to 1963, the prevailing works of that time, written by Stockhausen, Boulez, Berio and Cage, were nonpulsatile – there was no regular beat. There was a simultaneous move to have no sense of key, cadence, or resting point in the music. I had come from Bach, Stravinsky, and jazz (particularly John Coltrane), all of which shared a very clear, demarcated pulse. I realized that if I were going to do anything that had the least emotional resonance for myself, I had to reinstate the pulse, front and center. Listening to a lot of non-Western music, as well as rock songs like Junior Walker’s “Shotgun” (which had one bass line throughout), and then performing with Terry Riley in his composition, In C, pushed me towards working with short melodic patterns, a style anathema to Stockhausen, Boulez, or Berio. It wasn’t done as a political /historical gesture on my part –”You’ve done that, now I’m going to do this.” Stravinsky said something to the effect that composers “grub around for roots,” and I think that is absolutely accurate. It’s an instinctual searching for what it is that gets you musically excited. Still, what I did instinctually turned out to be an historical marker.
JC: This constant, fixed pulse occurs in most of your pieces…
SR: In every piece…except for occasional tempo changes as you find them in Different Trains, for example. But a sense of pulse is a basic musical characteristic in all my compositions.
JC: What about the notion of phasing, where a number of musical patterns result from going out of sync or phase with one another?
SR: Phase really has to do with the canon, which is a technique going back in Western music to at least the thirteenth century. I picked it up mostly from some of the simpler piano pieces in Bartok’s Mikrokosmos which I studied in the mid-’50s. In my early tape pieces It’s Gonna Rain and Come Out, you have one tape loop going and another identical loop slipping slightly behind the first one, and what you really have is a unison canon or round where the rhythmic interval between the first and second voices is variable and constantly changing. “Phase” was just a technical word I used at the time to refer to the function of the tape recorders. But once you looked at it musically you could understand it in terms of canons. By the time I wrote Tehillim, people noticed the canons because there were full-blown melodies, clearly perceived that way. But actually they were already there in It’s Gonna Rain, Come Out, Piano Phase, and Drumming.
JC: What strikes me about the canon is simply that all its material is the same material. So that the unity of creation is ingrained and inherent in the canonic process itself.
SR: That’s true. You don’t have to know what’s going on to absorb it – you don’t have to know, say, that this is a canon at such and such an interval; you’ll just feel the unity of it. It will have a subconscious effect on you. The reason why the canonic form is so durable is that people who aren’t musicians, who don’t know technically what’s going on, just enjoy it. Its logic has an emotional appeal.
JC: When I listen to your phase pieces, I experience an enormous release of energy. The boundaries within which I usually hear things start shifting and I enter into a new realm, percecptually and psychologically. Also, the spatial notions of forward and backward, and up and down, at times reverse, so I experience a whole new way of listening.
SR: I discovered the phasing process by accident. I had two identical loops of a Pentecostal preacher, Brother Walter, whom I recorded in San Francisco’s Union Square, saying “It’s gonna rain.” I was playing with two inexpensive tape recorders–one mono jack of my stereo headphones plugged into tape recorder A, the other into tape recorder B. And I had intended to make a specific relationship: “It’s gonna” on one loop, against “rain” on the other. Instead, the two recorders just happened to be lined up in unison, and one of them gradually started getting ahead of the other. The sensation I had in m head was that the sound moved over to my left ear, moved down to my left shoulder, down my left arm, down my leg, out across the floor to the left, and finally began to reverberate and shake and become the relationship I was looking for–”It’s gonna/It’s gonna, rain/rain”–and then started going in retrograde until it came back together in the center of my head. When I heard that, I realized it was more interesting than any one particular relationship because it was a process of gradually passing through all the canonic relationships making an entire piece and not just a moment in time. As you say, there’s a logic of one voice moving ahead of the other, but in fact what you hear is, first the unison, then this kind of reverberation, then an irrational relationship that you can’t pin down. You hear a lot of psychoacoustic fragments that you can organize in a lot of different ways. They’re really there, but it’s complicated because it’s words and a pigeon’s wings and traffic so that you begin hearing all kinds of things. Now, you’re not hallucinating, it’s really there, but it’s all how you interpret the data.
JC: In this piece and in Come Out you transform words into rhythm and pure sound.
SR: Every time there’s a vowel there’s a pitch. Black Pentecostal preaching hovers between speaking and singing, as you hear with Brother Walter. And what this method does is intensify it – it takes one little phrase, the vowel pitches and the consonant noises that go with them. As I recorded Brother Walter, a pigeon just took off near the microphone, and it sounds like a beating drum. You’ve got a kind of drum beat resulting from the periodic beating of the pigeon’s wings, a low rumble from the traffic going on in Union Square, and then you’ve got Brother Walter’s words – all of this going against itself at a slowly varying time rate. So it’s very hard not to read into this all kinds of words and sounds you’ve heard before, and this will vary from person to person. All music to some degree invites people to bring their own emotional life to it. My early pieces do that in an extreme form, but, paradoxically, they do so through a very organized process, and it’s precisely the impersonality of that process that invites this very engaged psychological reaction. So people who considered it to be mechanical and impersonal…well, it’s true; there’s that aspect to it. What’s interesting, however, is that the impersonality is precisely what seems to elicit a very strong personal human response.
JC: When talking about your music, one might say, “In the beginning was pulsation.” Couldn’t one similarly say, “In the beginning was the word”?
SR: I would never have said that until recently when I realized: It’s Gonna Rain, Come Out, Drumming, Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ, Music for 18 Musicians, Tehillim, The Desert Music, Different Trains, The Cave, City Life, and Proverb–they’re all vocal pieces, though in very different ways. Sometimes they’re recorded words, with or without instruments; sometimes it’s singing words, sometimes it’s vocalise. I realized that many of my best pieces do, in fact, use a singing or speaking voice. In Drumming, for instance, there’s a relationship between singing and mallet percussion, where the women’s voices imitate the sounds of marimbas. And then in Different Trains, the viola imitates the sound of a woman talking – the roles are reversed.
JC: And the words, with a certain pressure put on them, sound like notes.
SR: Exactly. “From Chicago – dum de dee dum.” It’s trompe l’oreille: first you hear the viola do it, and then you hear the woman speaking it with the viola.
About the time I composed It’s Gonna Rain, and even before then, I had a strong interest in contemporary American poetry – William Carlos Williams, Charles, Olson, and Robert Creeley, in particular. Back at Juilliard I tried to set them and it didn’t work out. I was taking something that was alive and was just nailing it down. It seemed like taxidermy. Later I became interested in tape recorders, but not like the musique concrète people who would record a car crash and run it through a ring modulator so that you’d never hear it was a car crash. My criticism was that car crashes are loaded with emotional overtones, so start with that as a perceptible given and go from there. When I worked on a speech piece like It’s Gonna Rain, the idea was to hear “it’s gonna rain.” I recorded that in 1964, shortly after the Cuban missile crisis. I was in San Francisco then and thought we might be going up in so much radioactive smoke. With that hovering in the background and this preacher laying it down about the flood and Noah, it really had a lot of resonance. So I wanted people to hear the words; I didn’t want to disguise them. Personally, at that time, I was going through a divorce, and the piece is extremely dark. The second part of the work is a much longer loop ending with Brother Walter’s words about people knocking on the door of the ark – “but it had been sealed by the hand of God” – and the whole long loop doesn’t reconstruct and come back together, it goes further and further out of phase until it is reduced to noise. The feeling is that you’re experiencing what it’s like to have everything completely dissolve into chaos.
Using the voice of individual speakers is not setting a text – it’s setting a human being. A human being is personified by his or her voice. If you record me, my cadences and the way I speak are just as much me as any photograph of me. And when other people listen to that, they feel a persona present. So when that begins to spread and multiply and come apart as it does in Its’ Gonna Rain, there’s a very strong identification of a human being going through this uncommon magic. This is why in the late 1980s, just after my involvement with the orchestra in a piece like The Four Sections, I felt I needed to get back in contact with those early works. There was something important there and I couldn’t let it go. Documentary reality still had material to be mined. And Different Trains was the first result of my return to documentary material, and then The Cave and City Life. My first use of the singing voice, on the other hand, occurs in Drumming, where the voices sing imitations of marimba patterns. That gets taken over in Music for 18 Musicians, then reoccurs in The Desert Music. Tehillim is perhaps the most conventional of my pieces; I think it’s also one of my best. It takes parts of the Psalms, a classical Western text, in the original Hebrew and uses a fairly large ensemble of traditional instruments and singers who sing the text in a very straightforward way, although it’s complex rhythmically.
JC: It’s interesting that one of your most recent pieces, Proverb, takes as its text on aphorism by the philosopher Wittgenstein: “How small a thought it takes to fill a whole life.” Didn’t you write an undergraduate thesis on Wittgenstein?
SR: [laughing]: Actually, I wrote a thesis criticizing Gilbert Ryle for criticizing Wittgenstein. When I wasn’t drumming or listening to jazz or Stravinsky, I spent my time in college reading Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations.
What drew me to Wittgenstein was his idea that philosophical problems could be understood by looking at how we normally use language. For instance, the philosophical question, “How can a mind (or soul) be inside a material body?” is using the noun “mind” or “soul” as if it were the same kind of noun as “spoon” or “stone.” Wittgenstein asks how we would teach a word like “mind” or “soul” to a child. In what “language games” would we use these words? This kind of close, subtle examination of everyday speech had a strong appeal to me.
As to his text that I used in Proverb, I was trying to embody it in the piece. That is, the “small thought” is the idea of canon or round. By augmenting the subject of the canon, the melody, making it longer and longer, the canon gradually expands into slowly changing held tones – perhaps similar to Four Organs. Then within that unfolding canon the tenors weave their melismas on single syllables. Musically, the source of that kind of thing is Pèrotin and the school of Notre Dame in the twelfth century.
JC: When were you first aware that you were going to be a composer?
SR: I guess that first occurred in my fourteenth year. Until then, I had grown up without knowing any music prior to 1750 or after 1890, except for some Broadway shows, pop tunes, and pieces by George Gershwin. And in that year (it was 1950) I heard, within a few months of each other, recordings of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 and bebop by Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and the drummer Kenny Clarke. All of this music shared a rhythmic pulse, which Brahms and Mahler, for example, didn’t; and it, or related pieces, had forms that were cyclical. A baroque figured bass is similar to jazz chord symbols, and both had a common practice so that if you knew the symbols you could improvise within that style.
The seeds were definitely sown at that time. It was as if you had lived in a house until you were 14 and someone said, “There’s one room you haven’t seen, but now that you’re fourteen you can see it.” I was totally unaware of a musical world that was really the one I was supposed to live in. Western music before 1750 and from Debussy onwards, as well as jazz and non-Western music, are the sources from which I’ve drawn almost everything.
At fourteen the flame was lit, and I immediately stopped studying the piano and took up the snare drum so I could form a jazz group with a pianist friend. But by the time I went to college I thought it was too late to become a composer – Mozart had been five, Bartók had been six…and here I was already seventeen! At Cornell, however, I was encouraged by William Austin, with whom I studied music history and jazz analysis. And that was pivotal. I gave up my plans to study philosophy in graduate school at Harvard and went back to New York City in 1957 to study composition with Hall Overton and, later, at Juilliard. The bottom line though is that there was one thing in life that had the most powerful emotional effect on me, and that was music. This was true before I was fourteen, but at the age of fourteen it took a quantum leap.
JC: I would think that almost anyone would take one of your most magnetic early pieces, Four Organs, which is the gradual augmentation of individual tones within a single chord, to be nothing less than an amazing wake-up call.
SR: Four Organs is the longest V-I cadence in the history of Wester music. You’ll find the chord in Debussy and Thelonius Monk-the tonic on the top and the dominant on the bottom. And it does have a wake-up quality. First of all, the piece is played on four screaming rock-and-roll organs, so the timbre is like talons on your ears. The high frequencies assault you, and the chord is like leaning forward – it’s a dominant eleventh chord; it’s going, so to speak, to the A, which is at the very top of the chord. And at the bottom is the E, which is saying, “Let’s go to the A!” But the answer to the E is, “We’re already there!” Then the E at the bottom gets removed, and little by little you remove all the thrust towards the A and are finally left with the A and a little E up on top, so you feel a kind of resolution. Meanwhile, you have the maracas sprinkling salt over the whole piece, constantly shaking out a growing number of eighth notes from the beginning to end. (The cycle goes from eleven beats at the beginning to 256 beats at the end.) So there’s a sense of slow motion: something you heard that takes a few seconds gradually takes longer and longer. And you hear more and more melodic movement revealed as the chord pulls apart.
JC: People associate this feeling with being spaced out.
SR: Don’t forget Four Organs was written in 1970, just after the ‘60s. Younger musicians call it my “punk piece.” that’s because of the instruments, the insistence, and the lack of harmonic variation – there’s one timbre and six pitches plus octave doublings, and that never changes. That was the raison d’être of the early pieces – no change of harmony, pitch, or timbre – everything is the same timbre (four identical organs, two four, and eight identical loops in the speech pieces). In order to create this overall mix, everyone had to have the same timbre. It’s an accoustical necessity if you want to get them all to mix and form one large musical web. All the changes are then rhythmic changes which end up creating melodic changes.
JC: Can you say something about the nature of time in your compositions? I always think of it as analogous to those digital clocks which zip by to the tenth of a second, while the hour markings go about their slow and kalpa-like periodicity. In your works, one can listen simultaneously to one piece to the rapidity of the whirling smaller intervals and/or relax and relate to the longer periodicities.
SR: One piece this calls to mind is Music for 18 Musicians. One rhythmic measurement in the piece is the human breath. At the same time there are regular pulses being hammered out in the mallet instruments. So I had an image of myself and my musicians drumming on a beach so that the water washes up on all of us, and we’re in our bare feet playing, and there are two kinds of time going on: the fixed, “digital” time on the drums; and the time that’s washing up in the waves, which is more or less “periodic” –more or less since wave number one washes up to a certain point on the beach, wave number two to another point, and so on. There’s the digital metronome – that’s an extreme form of regularity. As you go down, there’s the human heartbeat, which fluctuates all the time (as it does in City Life), then there’s breathing, which can become more irregular, the waves washing up on the beach, the earth’s annual trip around the sun, and so on. And in Music for 18 Musicians, this actually occurs as you listen: the human breath is a measure for the clarinets and singers, while the pulse in the mallet instruments (the quarter note equals about 208 on this recording) just goes on and on, and the two exist simultaneously. Likewise, in Eight Lines, the pianos never stop moving along in rapid eighth notes, the entire piece rests on that movement – it’s the ground on which the piece sits – but the strings are playing longer and longer held patterns that take up to ten bars.
JC: In a sense, Indian music conveys this notion of time through cycles and drones.
SR: I wasn’t a student of Indian music, but rather of West African and Balinese music. And I think there’s a real analogy to what I’m doing in Balinese gamelan music in which people play very fast-moving metallophones, but at the same time there are performers who sit in front of a large gong and make one stroke for every 64 beats. So there’s a huge pause and large expanse of time that they literally mark off. That’s what that music is all about – simultaneously related cycles of different lengths of 64, 32, 16, 8, 4 beats.
JC: Throughout your life you’ve been “grubbing for roots” in the soils of different kinds of music from all over the world.
SR: When I was a kid, I was a drummer. Then at Juilliard I stopped playing trap drums, swept that under the rug, and tried to get back to the keyboard. At the end of my studies, I realized, however, that I wanted to keep my drumming part of what I was doing. I asked myself: In what tradition is percussion the dominant voice of the orchestra? (In our Western orchestra the dominant voice is the strings – count them.) And the answer was West Africa and Indonesia. So from 1970 through 1974, I proceeded to study both of those musics – I traveled to Ghana in 1970 and then later studied Balinese gamelan music in Seattle and Berkeley. And the question then arose: What do I do with this? What really interested me about this music was that it was put together in different ways from how Western music is generally constructed. Simply, Ghanaian drumming is constructed so that several repeating patterns, more or less in subdivisions of twelve, are superimposed so that their downbeats aren’t in the same place. Back in 1965, wen I started the tape pieces and later the instrumental phase pieces, it was a similar situation: in the phase pieces, two or more players start off in unison but gradually player number two accelerates so that their downbeat is X number of beats ahead of the first player. This similarity to West African music was interesting to me (though there is no phasing in African music – or Balinese either). My conclusion was: rhythmic structure is what interests me in African and Balinese music, not the sound of the instruments.
Everybody grows up with a sound – the piano keyboard, for instance. We hear it from the time we’re infants, and that tuning goes into our subconscious. You generally don’t learn about contrapuntal structures like canons until you’re older; that kind of thinking is much more abstract. Canons by Bach or Bartók or Webern or by me have very little in common in terms of sound. What they do have in common is the structure – there’s a certain group of notes played once at this time and played again later at a certain rhythmic distance. How does it sound? You tell me how it sounds. What century are we in? But that durable technique has been around for at least 700 years and is still going strong. That’s the kind of thinking I apply to non-Western music. I want to think African, I want to think Balinese. I don’t want to imitate their sound. George Harrison used the sitar in “Norwegian Wood.” But I don’t know if that’s so lastingly interesting. What’s lasting about the Beatles is their ability to write great melodies.
When I composed my phase pieces in the 1960s, I thought to myself: Is this Day One, am I on another planet, or is there some relationship between these tape and instrumental pieces and anything that’s happened before in the history of music? And at that point I realized that my phase pieces were basically an unusual type of canon or round. And that thought made me feel very good; because it made me aware that I was varying something that’s been around for a long time. To someone interested, as I was, in the history of music, it was very encouraging. And to find that those techniques or related ones, occurred not only in your own culture’s music but also in the complicated polyphony of West African and Balinese music was even further encouragement.
JC: Where did your musical path take you next?
SR: Music isn’t notated in Africa or Bali – it’s transmitted orally from one generation to the next. History in West Africa was also oral. And when I came back from West Africa I asked myself: Don’t I have anything like that? And I thought: As a Jew I’m a member of an ancient civilization, but I don’t have the faintest idea of what it is I’ve come from. I never got my birthright, so to speak. I grew up with no knowledge of Hebrew, the Torah or the chanting of the Torah, the commentaries, the law derived from it, or the mysticism that surrounds the law. It was paradoxically the study of West African and Balinese music that awakened my curiosity about my own cultural background. So I began studying Biblical Hebrew and Torah at a modern orthodox synagogue in New York City and then studied Hebrew cantillation with a cantor, which led to a trip to Israel where I met older me from Yemen, Kurdistan, Iraq, and Cochin, India, to listen to and to record how they chanted the opening of Genesis in Hebrew. That was the background that led me to set a Hebrew text, which I did in Tehillim.
JC: So by following your musical path you became who you are.
SR: Apparently so. Studying West African and Balinese music led me eventually to study my own ethnic background. People raised in the 1950s and ‘60s, like myself, often felt they were “without a home, a complete unknown” – there was no ethnic underpinning. I simply had to discover where I came from, which was very satisfying and allowed me to learn things about Judaism that have become very important in my life.
JC: So you traveled far…
SR: …and wound up looking under my own bed. Exactly. The non-Western studies led me back to myself.
JC: There’s an extraordinary moment in Different Trains where you hear the sounds of a train’s whistle gradually transformed into an air-raid siren, and the words “Chicago to New York” transformed into “The Germans walked into Holland.” The “impersonal” techniques in your early-process works here suddenly become both extremely personal and historical as the trains you took as a little boy from New York to Los Angeles become the death-trains of the European Holocaust.
SR: Different Trains is partly an autobiographical piece. But when I first started work on it the only thing I knew was that I was going to use voices on a sampling keyboard and have the four string instruments doubling them…but I didn’t know who was talking. First I thought: It’s Bela Bartók talking, and I got tapes of his voice, but did I want Bartók sitting on my shoulder when I was writing a piece for string quartet? That was too much for me! So why not Ludwig Wittgenstein? No one had recordings of his voice. So then I thought of trying something closer to home. And those cross-country train rides I took between 1938 and 1941 when I was a child popped into my mind. I went out to Queens where my governess Virginia now lives and recorded her, then searched the sound archives to obtain the voices of Holocaust survivors. And the piece took off. It was my life. In those war years, boys like the one with his hands up in the famous photograph of the Warsaw ghetto were taking trains to Aushwitz, and they weren’t around to talk anymore. There but for the grace of G-d…
For me, the particular is the path to the universal. Kurt Weill is a good example. The Threepenny Opera is absolutely the Weimar Republic: there’s a banjo, a saxophone, trap drums – it’s 1920s cabaret. If he had used a conventional orchestra, it would not have worked. It’s terribly local and becomes a universal masterpiece that will live as long as there are musicians to perform it because Weill reveals where he was and what time it was. Another example: Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot are in Europe, while Dr. W.C. Williams is practicing medicine in Paterson, New Jersey, delivering the babies of Polish workers. Someone whom American Poetry has taken off from. I don’t know how anyone can try to be universal. They way you really do it is to just take care of your own work, do the best job you can, be as truthful as possible about the things right under your nose.
At the end of the 1980s I felt I had to write Different Trains. Best to do what you’ve been assigned to do. I’ve been given my assignment, just as everyone has his or her assignment. And I want to take care of that because it’s unique and I only have so many years to do it. So I just had to clarify what it was and then follow my musical intuition. And that’s what I’ve been doing.
New York, 1996