Composer Steve Reich
Two Conversations with Bruce Duffie
It is not often that I interview guests more than once, but occasionally
the continued advancement of creativity combines with additional opportunity,
and a further encounter is arranged.
I first met Steve Reich in October of 1985. The conversation dealt
with some specific works and also more general ideas incorporating a sense
of historical place. Apparently this is not the usual practice he was
used to with other journalists, as was noted at the end by a remark from
his agent. In any event, this chat was jovial and filled with good
humor, as well as the solid knowledge the composer had of his own works and
the global context into which he was dropped.
Almost exactly ten years later, in November of 1995, Reich was in the midst
of performances of his latest work, The
Cave. We met during that tour and though he was still recognizable
as his old self, there was more of a concentration on that work, and just
a bit of a darker nature to his composure. We still both enjoyed the
meeting, but there was certainly a difference in mood. His responses
allowed for a bit less of the pat-on-the-back demeanor and had a somewhat
more direct focus.
Material from both these conversations has been aired on the radio, and I
am very pleased to be able to showcase our entire dialogue in this format.
We begin in the fall of 1985 . . . . .
Bruce Duffie: First,
let me ask you — is the word “minimalist”
dead and buried?
Steve Reich: I
suspect I’ll be dead and buried before the word minimal is dead and buried.
This is a question that comes up often, as you might imagine. It seems
like words in the visual arts — like “impressionism,”
to cover Debussy, Ravel, Satie, maybe Kirkland; “expressionism,“
to cover Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, maybe Egon Wellesz; and now “minimalism,”
to cover myself, Phil Glass, Terry Riley, La Monte Young, maybe John Adams
— are terms that are really coined by musicologists and journalists.
[See my Interviews with Philip
Glass.] They are terms which composers can’t get rid of, whether
they’d like to or not. Schoenberg wanted to be called “pantonal,”
and no one much cared. Given the options of “hypnotic”
or “trance” or things like that,
this is a good choice. As a handle to pick up these names with one
word, it’s useful. To describe the music, it’s probably no more accurate
of my music now than “impressionism”
or “expressionism” is to describe
Schoenberg or Debussy. It might have been descriptive up to 1971
— up to Drumming, when
orchestration was a matter of multiplying timbres of identical nature for
pianos, for violins, for marimbas, for organs — but
I would say since Music for Mallet Instruments,
Voices, and Organ, and Music for
18 Musicians, certainly by Tehillim
and now with The Desert Music, as
a descriptive term it would be pretty irrelevant. But as I say, I don’t
think it really is used in that sense. I think it’s a handle; it’s
very thoroughly affixed to the vessel and there it’s going to stay whether
I like it or not! [Both laugh]
BD: Do you resent
being pigeonholed by the press?
SR: Not really. If I didn’t see it in a historical
perspective I might, but now that I see that this is sort of the ongoing
process of the way people are dealt with while we’re here, it’s simply par
for the course. That’s just the way things are.
BD: Do you like
being lumped together with Terry Riley and Phil Glass and John Adams?
SR: Of course I
want to be known for what it is that I do; Berg’s not Webern and Ravel’s
not Debussy, although you can certainly confuse them here and there.
There are obviously reasons why we’re put together, and to those who become
interested in the music, the differences are what becomes interesting, and
those differences become greater as the years pass.
BD: Is it the music
itself, of the world that progresses? In other words, have you and
Glass and Riley and Adams all sort of evolved separately, and yet in the
same kind of direction?
SR: I think we’ve
evolved in terribly different directions over the years. If there was
any common meeting ground, it might have been in very early days. John
Adams is not included in this; he’s ten years younger than us, and really
only surfaced in the last five years or so. But historically, I would
say the similarities might have been much more telling in 1969 than they
are in 1985.
BD: So how is your
music different from Terry Riley or Phil Glass?
SR: First of all,
I have moved towards working for the orchestra. I’ve also continued
my ensemble, though you may not know the most recent pieces I’ve done.
But obviously, The Desert Music,
Tehillim, and before that the Variations, are pieces that were written
on commission for orchestras; they are done by orchestras. They are
not music drama, as Glass has been doing; they are for orchestra in the sense
that Adams has written for orchestra. Riley has maintained a very active
interest in Indian music, which, to be candid, I think has been a very negative
effect on him; I think it’s sort of eaten him alive. I think his greatest
music is In C. I sincerely
wish he would pick up the thread of that kind of work, and perhaps he has
with some recent string quartets which I haven’t had the pleasure of hearing
yet. But he’s continued to be interested in things like tape delay,
that I would find absolutely irrelevant now. The use of pop music is
greater in Phil Glass; amplification and amplifying instruments is greater
there. The interest in music drama and film music — which
is something that at some time in my life I might do — will
remain a very minor part of my output. Those are very gross differences,
but they’re true.
BD: You keep writing
new pieces. Is each piece that you write greater than the last?
It is while I’m writing it!
SR: It is while
I’m writing it, but it certainly is not, even in my own retrospect.
I can see that, I think, fairly objectively. Obviously, composers are
not necessarily the best judges of their own work, but I would say that as
that goes, I’m fairly good at judging, given my experience in the field.
Bigger is not better; newer is not better. Better is better, and better
is based on musical quality, which is elusive but can be pinned down.
Some fairly traditional values adhere; certain kinds of variety, certain
kinds of overall unity are always a question. I reject a
lot of pieces; they simply stay in the notebooks. That has its plusses
and its minuses, ultimately, but I think I’m a reasonably good judge of my
own music. I could, if pressed up against a wall, enumerate
what I think are the better pieces...
BD: [With a gentle
nudge] Should I press you up against the wall, or no?
BD: I rarely ask
for this kind of inward evaluation, but which ones do you feel are better?
SR: Starting from
way back, pieces like Come Out,
Drumming, certainly, Music for 18 Musicians, the Octet, Tehillim, The Desert Music might be the very top
of the line.
BD: You are often involved in the performance of
your pieces. Are you the ideal interpreter of your own music?
SR: In one sense,
yes, and in one sense, no. I’ve had an ensemble, so I’ve had a lot
of practical experience in doing the music. I’ve had a lot of practical
experience in finding the musicians who are well-suited to do the music.
However, when I work with a conductor like Michael Tilson Thomas, one of
the jokes between us is that when he has an idea, I look at him and I say,
“Michael, pretend I’m dead!” [See my Interview with Michael Tilson
Thomas.] For instance, in the second and fourth movement of The Desert Music, those little sforzandi were not in the original score.
But Tilson Thomas said, “You need a little punctuation here.” At first
I resisted it; then he did it, and I said, “You know, Michael, you’re right.
Thank you very much!”
BD: Is that idea
something he put into the score, rather than finding it in the score?
SR: I think it’s
something he found in the score and brought to the fore. There was
an eighth rest after, and that’s all I needed. He made it stronger,
made it more, put a kind of clarification on it. It’s putting a sforzando
on a note that has a rest after it, instead of just playing the note with
a rest after it! It doesn’t sound like a great deal, and ultimately
it may not be, but it clarifies and intensifies it; it improves the piece,
and those kinds of interpretive nuances may very well be done with insight
BD: Have you ever
heard a piece of yours done by another group in which you had no contact
whatsoever, except to hear the finished product?
SR: Oh, sure, even
BD: Are you pleased
SR: I could tell
you a lot of stories... One of them dates back to the middle seventies.
I got a tape of Six Pianos from
Shenendoah Conservatory in Virginia. When I first put it on, I thought
it was lugubriously slow! Then I began listening to it, and I thought,
“No, this is very good! This is very interesting. This is real
insight! This is the southern gentlemen taking their time and bringing
out all the details in a way this harried New Yorker in me would never allow.”
Another more recent and rather amusing story comes from the summer of 1983.
I was in Vermont, and got a telephone call from a Hungarian musician named
Tibor Szemzo. He was with One Eighty, a young group of musicians in
Budapest. He said that he was in New York and was coming up to Vermont,
and asked if he could he get the materials to the Octet. This was before I was working
with Boosey and Hawkes. I said, “Sure, fine.” We met in a gas
station, very informally, and while we were there, he said, “By the way, there’s
a little problem. We don’t have any clarinets or bass clarinets.”
I said, “But that’s of the essence in the Octet. It’s a big timbre.
What are you going to do?” He said, “We’re going to use the oboe and
bassoon and trombone and Fender bass.” I said, “Oh, that’s nice.
Good-bye.” [Laughs] I gave him the stuff, and thought, “Well,
it’s six thousand miles away or more. It’s a small country; it’s a poor
country. So, so long, and good luck!” A year later I was in Vermont
again for the summer. I went to the Post Office and there’s a cassette
from Budapest from the crazy Hungarian! So I put it on and I was very
quickly almost reduced to tears! It was so beautifully done!
The re-orchestration was precisely those instruments, and it was very humorous,
very witty, beautifully conceived, with very light accents in the trombone
in just the right places. The continuity was kept by the Fender bass.
I wrote him a letter and said, “This is really remarkable. I must tell
you that in certain ways, you play my music as well, and in some instances
better, than my own ensemble.” That led to a trip to Budapest, and
they recorded it for Hungaroton!
BD: Should more
people take your music and tamper with it?
the scores go out. This was an unusual situation. Usually any
tampering is simply the interpretive nuances that any group of players, be
they orchestral or chamber, bring to a score. That will always either
be sort of a methodical run-through, or a really thoughtful realization.
Any thoughtful realization will be news to the composer.
* * *
BD: Can composers
SR: That’s a good
question. Bartók said no, and he may very well be right.
Of course, he was thinking of it in terms of refusing to teach composition
himself. I have abstained from teaching because I’m selfish, and I
really don’t want to take the energy.
BD: You don’t want
SR: The bother is really more than just a bother.
To teach composition, you really have to project yourself into the minds
of the students, and that is a very arduous and difficult task. You
have to have a very wide, complete musicianship, and use every bit of it
for the benefit of the students. There are very few good teachers.
Vincent Persichetti comes to mind immediately. [See my Interview with Vincent
Persichetti.] Another is Hall Overton who was a jazz musician and
is no longer with us. But I don’t know if that is the ideal occupation
for a composer. Based on my experience, I would say it is certainly
not, and it was for that reason that I did not follow a university path.
Precisely the energies that are needed to write music are sopped up as blotter
paper in the process of teaching composition.
BD: That’s answering
the question from the teacher’s point of view. What about from a student’s
point of view?
SR: Oh, then the
answer is yes! I worked with well-known composers like Milhaud and
Berio. [See my Interview
with Luciano Berio.] Teachers have a talent for projecting themselves
into the exact situation of the student. They seem to know intuitively
what technical information to supply at a certain time, what psychological
attitude to manifest to both instruct the student and to encourage him so
that he’ll be able to continue working — which is of the essence. That’s
a rare talent where that kind of dichotomy tends to be the case.
What you learn from scores and performances and recordings of well-known composers,
be they alive or dead, is of the essence. But for the person who’s
going to sit there and help translate that information, that person may very
well not be a composer that anyone knows very well.
Should a student just copy a few Beethoven scores, a little Wagner, some
Mahler and some Steve Reich?
think that that kind of activity — imitation — is of the essence,
and is always the main focus of a student’s process. I had to write
Mozart sonatas with Vittorio Rieti one summer. While the
student can do a great deal on his own, he can do infinitely more under the
hands of a teacher. Writing those things in the closet is one thing;
writing them under the tutelage of someone else, who’s going to say, “Here’s
where you fell down; here’s where you did it very well. Why don’t you
think of that? Why don’t you use this as a model today, because I know
that you do better with a set of variations in A major, rather than the one
in F that’s really sonata allegro form.” Those kinds of decisions —
what to do, when, and how — are of the essence, and you must know the student
personally to make those suggestions.
BD: But you have
to find a teacher who will tell you how to make decisions, not what decisions
SR: You have to
find a teacher who can build up your technique in an encouraging way, giving
you those items of technique that he senses are what you need at the time
he gives them to you. And that is, indeed, a very special talent that
composition alone does not give one. It’s a separate talent.
BD: When you’re
writing a piece of music, do you think of any kind of public at all, or any
SR: Yeah, me!
[Both laugh] I write for myself. Certainly I would be crushed
if what I did were despised or boring or of no interest to others.
I want to be loved; I don’t want to be interesting, I want to be loved passionately
or hated passionately. The cruelest words that can be applied to a
new piece of music are, “Oh, that was so interesting!” [Both laugh]
I’d rather go one extreme or the other. But while writing in the studio,
while involved in composing itself, I don’t know of any other audience that
I could refer to. I don’t know of any bag of tricks. Without
naming any, there are composers who write what you could call the Piece of
the Month Club. At a certain period in our not-too-distant past, they
were writing pieces like Webern. Shortly thereafter, they began writing
pieces like John Cage, and then they might have written a piece sort of in
the style that I write in. [See my Interview with John Cage.]
I think that’s a sad situation. It’s grasping at straws; it’s trying
to keep up with the Joneses. If there is no guide inside of one, if
there is no inner necessity for doing what one is doing, there are lots of
better-paying jobs in the world.
BD: Are you happy
that your style of music is becoming more mainstream?
SR: Yes, I’m interested
and pleased to have conductors like Tilson Thomas, Edo de Waart, even Zubin
Mehta take an interest in what I’m doing; [See my Interviews with Zubin Mehta.]
to have musicians like Ransom Wilson and Richard Stoltzman doing pieces,
asking for pieces, and writing for them. [See my Interview with Richard Stoltzman.]
I’m also very pleased to continue to write for people like Russ Hartenberg
and Bob Beckett, the percussionists that have been in my ensemble over the
years. The feedback that one gets from first-rate musicians is the musical
criticism that is of use. The dissatisfactions that a really first-rate
player has with a piece during rehearsal should be taken very seriously.
One can, and should, learn from those because that is criticism given in
the best of spirits. It’s from someone who has made some kind of commitment,
and likes what you’re doing; it’s simply a point of the things that could
be improved. Those reactions, whether they are purely intuitive or
technical, have been very helpful for me over the years.
BD: Is there ever
a case where a musician will say, “This is wrong,” and you’ll say, “No, the
music is right. Learn it!”?
SR: Oh, yeah.
It depends. Both extremes come up. Years ago we were working on
Six Pianos and another piece called
Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and
Organ, written at the same time. In rehearsal, particularly
in the mallet piece, one section would always go slowly; it would drag out.
I began to realize it’s the section, it’s not the players. For converse,
there are some odd stick jumps in the Sextet
that Russ Hartenberg had told me were big jumps. I said, “Yeah, you
just have to jump.” [Laughs] You have to know when and where
and how, but you certainly have to listen to those kinds of comments very
BD: So the historian
in me begins to wonder... More than a century ago, they abandoned Tristan after seventy rehearsals, saying
it was unplayable. Now, every third-rate orchestra can get through
it, but Wagner didn’t make any changes.
SR: That is definitely to be taken into consideration.
In more recent times, Ionisation
by Varèse used to take thirty or forty rehearsals, and was a very
Now every student percussion ensemble does it in less than a week.
There are certain inherent problems in what I do that have become
increasingly easier for musicians. I’ll tell you an amusing story about
that. Especially in percussion pieces, my ensemble will often try to
economize on instruments so that we don’t have to tour with too many.
For instance, Music for Mallet Instruments
requires four marimbas, but we have gotten it down to two by simply having
one player stand in back of the instrument. I’d written the part out
and distributed it so that one person is predominantly playing on the accidentals.
It also makes for a much more interesting way to play the piece; it’s like
facing your opponent for the game, and the rhythmic energy generated by that
playing situation is much more lively than simply playing on two separate
instruments. [Similar configuration shown at right; illustration of
individual players at each of six marimbas is shown farther below.]
Later, when the piece was done by John Adams and the San Francisco Symphony,
I was curious to see how they would do it. It’s a piece that my ensemble
has done a great deal, and I haven’t been around when it’s been done by others.
The parts that were sent out were for separate instruments, but then I saw
in the rehearsal that the two principal percussionists are facing each other
on the same instrument! I kind of cocked my head at one of them and
asked, “How come you’re playing like this? One of you is on the wrong
side of the instrument,” pretending to be dumb. He said, “We know how
you guys do it and it’s much more fun that way, so we redistributed the parts.”
[Both laugh] So I chalk that up to exactly what you’re talking about.
There’s a certain clarity that comes about the sort of polyrhythms that I
deal with, the problems that are presented by what doesn’t look to be too
difficult on paper, but in context turns out to be very difficult.
It is something that by musical osmosis seems to slowly take care of itself.
People get to know what those problems are. They become familiar with
non-Western music and the jazz inflections that are simply floating around
in the musical consciousness of a given generation. And lo and behold,
when you approach middle age, a lot of the orchestra which used to look like
your Grandpa, now begins to look like your children, and they have solved
a lot of the technical problems. These things take care of themselves
in that way. It would be very hard to nail down a coming awareness
of a newer style by musicians when they’re younger, and what the technical
problems are that are associated with that style. But because they
become familiar with it earlier on in their training, a lot of the solutions
happen as if without effort at all.
BD: Is that because
life itself is now moving faster, we have to absorb so much more, more quickly?
SR: More is not
better. It’s still a problem to play Mozart, too. There are different
kinds of problems. There are virtuosic problems, such as how to play
a very difficult passage that moves like crazy. That’s one kind of musical
problem, and you have it all over the literature in different kinds of situations.
Another kind of problem is “the Mozart problem,”
or “the Haydn problem.”
There are very few notes, but they’ve got to be absolutely just so.
The slightest fault of intonation, the slightest hesitation rhythmically,
is painfully apparent to all. That’s my situation; so it isn’t that
music is always getting more complicated and therefore performers are always
getting more pyrotechnic. A lot of the things I’m doing are really
recalling the kinds of problems of the early Classic period, or certainly
of the Baroque period, because my music is more contrapuntal than it would
be homophonic. It would be closer, technically, to Bach than it would
be to Mozart.
music always progressing?
SR: Certainly not!
There’s no such thing. That’s hogwash! When you go from Gregorian
chant to Machaut, you lose the suavity of one line. When you go from
Gregorian chant to Perotin, you lose the beauty and refinement of one single
line, and you gain these giant massive blocks of one tenor line and three
decorative upper voices. When you move to Machaut, I actually find
it kind of fussy, and kind of a let-down. The massiveness, the weight
of Perotin is lost in the refinement, and the sort of hothouse environment,
which was important to the Mannerists in the late fourteenth century.
It’s win some, lose some. When something is well done, it’s well done.
Whether it’s a tune played on a solo flute or a massive orchestra and chorus
is a descriptive situation, not a value judgment. Bigger isn’t better,
newer isn’t better, older isn’t better. Better is better, period.
It would be so much easier if it were otherwise, but it isn’t. [Laughs]
We have to painfully examine each thing as it comes along, and there’s no
getting away from that.
BD: This brings
me to one of my favorite questions. Is music art, or is music entertainment?
SR: Good art music
is always entertaining, in my view of things. I am not someone to fixate
as a model on Arnold Schoenberg; I would rather fixate on Bach or even Vivaldi!
You go into a coffee shop, have your cappuccino, and tinkling away in the
background is a Brandenburg Concerto.
It’s delightful. It fits the situation. You talk and you don’t
even know it’s there; or maybe you do and you don’t much care one way or
the other. In another context, that same piece becomes a high point
in Western civilization. The man who wrote it is certainly a candidate
for being the greatest musician who ever lived in this part of the globe,
including Western Europe and America. The durability of the music,
its ability to be played on the synthesizer, its ability to serve as background
music, and its ability to become reinterpreted on either ancient or contemporary
instruments, is finally a testimony to its greatness. And it is entertaining,
yes! The craze for Mozart is because he is entertaining, but that doesn’t
undercut his achievement. It raises the level of seriousness, finally,
because all the levels are working — the vulgar level
and the most refined, most abstract level — if functioning
simultaneously. To me this is an ideal, and insofar as my pieces can
approach that, they’ve succeeded.
BD: So you’re not
going to object if you hear yourself in an elevator sometime?
SR: In the words
of Chuck Berry, “Any old way you use it!”
* * *
BD: Music is said
to be the universal language. You have taken some of the Eastern culture
— gamelan music — and all of this together,
so is your music more universal than music that just has the Western influence?
SR: No, I think
it’s merely a fact about my music that it has been influenced by African
music and by Balinese music. In the summers of ’73 and ’74, I studied
Balinese music in Seattle. I also taught my own music to students in
those summers, and when my music was played, the audience included some of
my teachers from Bali — the south Indian violinist
Subramaniam, and his brother Shankar, who’ve become fairly well-known recently.
And it was very interesting to me to have their reactions, which were positive.
They understood a lot of the techniques that were being used. But finally,
one comes back to musical quality. Bach is very transportable; this
kind of music appeals to a non-Western mind as well as to a Western mind,
and open Western musicians certainly find interest in Balinese, African,
and Indian music.
BD: So the West
is finding interest in the East. Is the East finding interest in the
SR: Look at all
these Oriental concert performers. All you have to say is “Seiji
Ozawa” and I’ve answered your question! [Both
laugh] And he’s just the tip of the iceberg!
BD: I did an interview
with Lou Harrison, and he kept referring to Europe as “Northwest
Asia.” [See my Interview with Lou Harrison.]
SR: Lou is an interesting and somewhat eccentric
gentleman who I have real affection for. I work quite differently than
he does. In his case, and in the case of other composers of his generation,
there was an interest in taking the sounds of Indonesian music, and appropriating
them through tacked piano and various Western situations, and even creating
his own gamelan. I would run from that; I have leaned over backwards
to avoid that. My only interest in non-Western music, insofar as I’m
going to appropriate it, is to learn from it, see how I’m going to use it,
find out how it’s put together, its structure and so forth. For me,
the sounds of music, the scales and the timbres of the instruments, are something
that most of us learn when we are very young — even before we walked.
We are programmed to the scales on the piano keyboard. We are programmed
as to the sounds of the piano, violin, electric guitar that’s around us,
well before we’re able to play any music or say anything or form any conscious
activity. It always felt to me, on an intuitive level, that I was uncomfortable
with African and Balinese instruments. I think they’re gorgeous, but
I feel they tell a story. Their story is that they were born in such
and such a place, far, far away from here, that they were part of a very
large and very old musical history, and that that’s where they’re comfortable,
that’s where they belong and where they fit in. When I brought back
some bells from Africa, I started thinking about how I was going to tune them,
and I really can’t imagine myself with a metal file; it felt like kind of
a musical rape. So instead, I simply taught some of the musicians in
my ensemble how to play some bell patterns, using the African instruments
to play African music the way you would learn a piece of Scarlatti.
It was to simply get it out of my system. I had a lot of confirmation
for ideas that I had. For instance, two repeating patterns lined up
so that their downbeats do not coincide describes a lot of what I do, and
it describes a lot of what goes on in African music. The sound is wildly
different. What you hear in African music and what you hear in the
opening of The Desert Music couldn’t
be further apart, but there’s real community of structure there!
Structure is something that a musician learns later in life. You don’t
learn about canon or sonata allegro form when you’re three months old.
A precocious child would learn that at four or five, which would be astoundingly
early. That’s the kind of thing you pick up when you’re in your teens,
and for that very reason, those kinds of ideas can travel more easily because
they are about organizing sounds. The idea of canon, for instance,
is the basic idea of imitative counterpoint. It props up about the
thirteenth century in Sumer Is Icumen In
[photo of score at right] and runs throughout the Baroque period.
You can hear canons again in Webern in the Symphony; we heard them in the Bartók
quartets and in his piano music; and we hear them in my music. All
those musics sound wildly different, but the canon is such a neutral technique.
It’s like a glass — you can put in wine or Pepsi-Cola or whatever you like.
It doesn’t tell you about its sound contents, it is simply an abstract idea,
and a very, very durable one at that. That’s precisely what I look
for in non-Western music, which has many procedures very close to canon.
BD: You look for
the durable technique?
SR: I look for
the compositional procedures in terms of structural ideas of a contrapuntal
nature, which, contrary to what we sometimes learned years ago, did not carry
uniquely in the West. Certainly overlapping drum patterns in African
music are a clear kind of counterpoint; in the Balinese gamelan, certain
lines and different metallophones are arranged in a way that is contrapuntal,
but in an imitative way, and therefore closer to canon.
BD: So then you’re
always using the old ways. Why does it always seem that many composers
today try to reinvent the wheel?
SR: There are many
composers around nowadays who are interested in reinventing the late nineteenth
century, and some of them are very good at it! David Del Tredici, who
is a very, very talented composer, and even John Adams in the second half
of his Harmonielehre recently, are
really closer, (and say they’re closer) to Mahler and Sibelius or Richard
Strauss or Brahms than they are to Perotin or any of the things I’ve been
talking about. [See my Interview with David Del
Tredici.] I am the exception, I would say. Right now we’re
living in a world that Wolfgang Rihm in Germany, HK Gruber in Vienna, George
Rochberg here in the US and even Fred Rzewski show a real interest in nineteenth
century romantic music, which I have no part of whatsoever. [See my
Interview with George
Rochberg, and my Interview
with Frederic Rzewski.] That’s just not back far enough for me!
[Both laugh] I’ve got to get before 1750 before I can even get awake!
Or, after 1900. I went to Cornell University and studied music history
with William Austin, who’s a very great musicologist. He specialized
in the twentieth century, and taught music history by starting with Gregorian
chant and going up to the death of Bach in 1750. Then he stopped and
jumped to Debussy and went up through jazz and Schoenberg and Stravinsky
to the present. Then he stopped again and went back to Haydn through
to Wagner. I learned a lot from that! There’s a lot of method
to that madness.
BD: Would you object
to your pieces being done on concerts with a Beethoven symphony and a Haydn
SR: They have been
done with some of those pieces, and I really don’t have any control over
that. All one can do is to write. What I’m telling you are my
own tastes and where it is that I’ve learned in the literature. To
write an orchestral piece, you must expect that other orchestral pieces will
be played on the program, and that you will usually have nothing to say about
that programming. So we got back to what I said at the beginning
— the best thing one can do is to write the best, most durable,
best crafted and most inspired piece one can possibly write, and hope for
BD: Do you think
your music will last fifty, a hundred, two hundred, three hundred years?
SR: I won’t be around to see that, will I?
All I can do is the very, very best I can, and I’ll say I certainly hope
that it will last as long as we have a history in front of us. I hope
that we have a history in front of us, and I hope that I’ll be a part of
BD: When I spoke
with Alan Hovhaness at his home in Seattle, he was the first one who really
made it come home to me that composers have to write for the future; that’s
all they have. [See my Interview with Alan Hovhaness.]
SR: Well, I don’t
know about that. You’re alive, and when you’re writing, you’re hearing
it. If you derive no pleasure from that, then I would say that your
chances in the future were very slim indeed! One is aware of history
and one can project the future, but there’s got to be a real balance, and
I think that anyone who’s totally sitting around projecting himself into
music history is in a very strange way, indeed. One lives in the present;
one gets one’s strength in the present, and one’s musical inspiration is
not just from the past. I went to music school in the late 1950’s and
the early ‘60’s, and it seemed, in the academic musical environment, that
we were living in 1912 Vienna, with a dark brown fin-de-siècle German feel in the
air. People were taking their academic musical cues from Boulez, Stockhausen
and Berio, who had taken their cues from Berg, Schoenberg and Webern.
[See my Interviews with
Pierre Boulez.] All of those European composers are great composers,
and all of them were responding to the real situation that they were living
in at the time. Those who aped them here in America in the fifties
and sixties, living with jazz, with rock and roll, with cheap hamburgers
and tailfins, were pretending to live in a time and a place that they, in
fact, were not. And it was for that reason, and many ramifications
of it, that I moved away from academia and responded to what I felt I wanted
to do musically. In many respects, it was a sociological vacuum at
BD: It sounds like
you simply wanted to be honest with yourself and your time.
SR: That’s precisely
so. I’m someone who grew up with jazz. I’m someone who loved
Kenny Clarke and Miles Davis as much as I loved Igor Stravinsky and Johann
Sebastian Bach. I studied trap drums and played them, and was responding
to that very, very actively, and felt that I got as much, or more, from John
Coltrane as I got from certain teachers at Juilliard, who are not Vincent
Persichetti, and shall remain nameless.
BD: Of course.
enough, Europeans, and I mean the European radio stations and those who were
in positions of hiring musicians to come and play for them, have recognized
that in myself and my contemporaries such as Riley, Glass, even John Cage
in the jazz musicians. Europeans react to things in American music
that they find uniquely American, that are not reruns of European culture
which they find tiresome and irrelevant. So they are interested in
what we think of as the experimental tradition. They are interested
in people like Cage; they are interested in people like Cowell; they are terribly
interested in people like Ives and Horatio Parker, who was quite acceptable
at Ives’s time, but is just a dim memory and no use to Europeans or Americans
at this juncture.
BD: Is there a
place at all for Horatio Parker on our concert stages?
SR: He was Ives’s
teacher. He might have been a very nice guy. I’m sure he gave
him, in certain respects, a marvelous education, but he remains kind of a
footnote item. I don’t think he has much entertainment; Ives is very
entertaining and he is great art!
* * *
BD: Let me ask
you about recording. How do you feel about getting your music embedded
SR: I love it!
It’s the most important thing that can happen to a composer nowadays.
When composers get together, they all candidly admit that having a piece
published is not as important as having it recorded. I grew up with
records; I grew up with recorded sound. I heard The Rite of Spring on record before I
heard it played live. I heard the Brandenburg Concertos on record before
I heard them played live. I heard Charlie Parker and Miles Davis and
Kenny Clark before I heard them play live. So that made an enormous
impression in my perception of musical sound, which may explain why I like
an amplified chorus. I like the agility and sound of a small voice
amplified, rather than a large bel canto vocal production.
BD: Are you trying
to reproduce the recorded sound in the concert hall?
SR: That there are aspects of that. It may
also be my taste in musical history. For someone who doesn’t care for
any kind of bel canto opera, and who appreciates the kind of vocal sound
that you would get years ago from someone like Marni Nixon — the
small, non-vibrato voice — I’ve gravitated to that sound in the chorus of
The Desert Music. It’s in
Tehillim as well. The people
who sing actually come from Musica Sacra, from the Waverly Consort, old-music
people in New York City. I have had dealings with these people for
many, many years now. Van Harmis, who runs Calliope, was in my ensemble.
That kind of sound, if it’s going to be put in a context where there’s a
lot of percussion, will have to be amplified. Some people could see
that as a kind of crutch; I see it as exactly what I want to hear.
The detail that comes through on recording is something that I crave in performance.
My music is very intricate, and in recording we do it on multi-track.
I talked a lot about that multi-track procedure (which originated in rock
and roll) with Peter Clancy from Nonesuch. I find it marvelous for
recording an orchestra piece like The Desert
Music! We used almost fifty mikes in that piece. Paul
Goodman, who ran the RCA Studio A, told me he thought it was the largest
session he had ever seen in that room — not in terms
of forces, which it was; it was a hundred sixteen people — but in numbers
of microphones. That was not capricious. That was to get that
on-mike, close detailed sound all the way through the string section.
In certain kinds of music, particularly nineteenth century music, one doesn’t
want that. One wants the depth and sort of indefinite, dark brown edges
of the music to blur. That’s the richness of sound that you want there.
That’s appropriate to that style. For what I do, that’s not appropriate.
I want the detail of a large ensemble to come through all around you, as
if you were sitting right where the conductor is.
BD: Are you writing,
then, for records rather than for concert?
SR: No, by no means.
But the fact of the matter is that numerically, many, many, many, many, many
more people hear your recordings than hear your concerts — even
pieces that are widely performed. There’s no way that you could reach
the audience that you can reach on recordings with concerts. Maybe
it’s even true of people like Bruce Springsteen, who play the biggest and
best attended concerts around right now. I have tried to learn some
things from recording. One is that in the use of amplification, certain
details can be brought to the fore. In live performances of The Desert Music, the chorus is amplified
and the woodwinds are amplified because the woodwinds are very largely supporting
the chorus. I want that sound to really meld together. If the
woodwinds were acoustical and the chorus was amplified, you wouldn’t have
quite the match of sound. It isn’t just volume I’m talking about; it’s
a timbral adjustment as well, and the actual source of sound which is coming
from the instruments and also from the speakers behind and in front of the
BD: Is this going
to create a new kind of virtuoso, the virtuoso technician?
SR: A good technician
is, of course, important. I don’t think that you can compare that kind
of virtuosity to the kind of virtuosity that’s needed to play an instrument
well. When I was writing The Desert
Music, I was discussing with people at Boosey and Hawkes the difficulties
in getting the piece played if X and Y were to happen. For instance,
I only needed three English horns, but we felt that if we asked the principal
to double on English horn, we would literally be cutting our throats.
It was better to ask for four players than to ask for that! [Both laugh]
BD: As an old bassoon
player, I can see how that could cause a large problem.
SR: On the other
hand, they felt that asking for twenty-four mikes and a large mixing board
was absolutely nothing. And you know what? They were right.
I’ve had this discussion recently with the people at the San Francisco Symphony,
talking about what woodwinds situations were possible. The same exact
sentiments — don’t ask the principal on any woodwind
instrument to double, but if you want to have electronics, don’t ever bother
me now; we’ll work it out at the time. It’s no problem. Now by
electronics, I mean nothing more than microphones. I’m not talking
about fancy, sophisticated stuff. I think that what’s called in the
concert world “sound reinforcement,”
at it’s here to stay. Some people think it’s horrible,
and perhaps it is, if it’s applied to music that wasn’t conceived to incorporate
BD: Of course,
it has to be done right, so we’re back to the virtuoso
SR: Well, I think
the musically sensitive technician, yes; a technician with ears. Mozart
symphonies weren’t intended for three thousand seat halls! And forget
about the Baroque period. You simply don’t have the volume in the original
orchestra there to project to fill these halls. So you have two ways
to go. You either have some mechanical or electrical boost on the smaller
ensemble, or you have a Mahler orchestra playing a Mozart symphony.
I’d rather opt for the first. If you’re going to have to compromise
by having a large hall for a small piece, I’d rather see something either
mechanical — some kind of a band shell or a seating arrangement or a floating
device in the ceiling that softens or hardens the hall — rather than putting
Mahler’s eighteen first violins in a Mozart symphony. I’d rather work
on that end of it, and go for at least getting out a sound that’s natural
to the music, that’s the correct performing body.
BD: So let’s
project ourselves into the future. Two hundred years from
now, people can listen to this tape [or read this transcript!], and see how
you want your music done.
SR: [Leaning into the microphone for a DJ-type of
sound] Tune in now, you all, wherever you are!
It’ll be a different kind of set-up. Maybe it’ll be people on the moon,
or maybe it’ll be people scattered over different places, or larger groups
of people, or smaller groups of people. How do you want your instrumentation,
your amplification, changed or altered?
SR: That’s kind
of a humorous question and we have to keep a large grain of salt in replying
to something like that.
BD: A full shaker,
perhaps... [Both laugh]
SR: A whole shaker,
right. I would say that I would go for the Christopher Hogwood approach.
Go back and read my little essays and look over the original scores, find
the Nonesuch and other records and try to figure out what they did way back
when! I’m definitely with the old music people who go for original
instruments. Glenn Gould was fantastic, and he’s the exception that
proves the rule. I like old music played on the original instruments,
and I like the mentality that goes with it. I like the enthusiasm that
someone like Harnoncourt has and can bring to music. The way he’ll
play a Mozart symphony will sound more like Stravinsky to some people’s ears.
BD: Should we go
back to original tuning, also?
SR: Well, that’s
an interesting problem. Pitch has changed substantially since 1750,
and it keeps going up. I’ve heard that the Berlin Philharmonic is verging
towards 444 and 446, and there seems to be no end in sight. It’s interesting.
I’m simply unaware of it, but there probably has been some kind of a psychophysical
analysis of why it is that musicians in the West have ever sharpened their
string sections, and consequently their entire tunings. I’ve never
thought about it long and hard. Somehow it seems to make sense that
you would go that way, rather than flattening, at least in this world.
But why is it so progressive? There’s that feeling for ever more brilliance!
It’s a little Faustian, I guess, in certain ways.
BD: So the D minor
that we hear is not the D minor that Mozart heard.
SR: Right, exactly
so, and that is a real question. One can argue that things can be transposed
down a semi-tone in the earlier part of the literature.
BD: So Don Giovanni will start in C sharp minor!
[Both give a big laugh]
SR: A lot of players
aren’t going to like those kinds of historical accuracies at all, unless
we do a lot of scordatura before
we get started.
BD: Does it please
you at all that your music is becoming more mainstream?
SR: What is mainstream
music? If people listen to The Desert
Music simply because it is played by a normal symphony orchestra with
normal instruments in the same numbers as one normally finds them, they will
find the piece relatively easy to take. The earlier pieces, because
some of them are done primarily on percussion instruments, immediately sound
more exotic and strange. Actually, the community of musical procedures
is rather close, but the instrumentation means a lot on first listening.
But I would say in all honesty that people looking for a historical handle
on what it is that I do, should forsake the immediate historical predecessors
of mine — the twelve-tone people in Europe like Berio,
Stockhausen, and Boulez, even though I studied with Berio, and although you
can find some similarities in the systematic approach to things
— and look instead at much earlier periods, such as the Baroque,
the Renaissance and the Medieval. It is in that area that they will
find the kinds of imitative techniques that they find in my music.
I remember recently coming across one of the Missa L’homme armé by Josquin
des Prez. He wrote two of them; it’s the one on the sixth tone, and
in the end, in the Agnus Dei, the
lower voices, the tenor and bass, are singing the tune forwards and backwards,
very, very slowly, and on top of them the women are singing very rapidly
in a very, very close interval. It’s a canon at about what we would
now call an eighth note, and that is, technically speaking, what goes on
in my Octet. Pianos are moving
at very, very tight canon, very, very fast eighth notes, and below them the
fiddles are moving at ten-bar phrases very spaciously, very slow, also in
canon. The pieces sound entirely different, but they are, in many respects,
identical in procedure and attitude. The final result is very different,
but especially looking at the page, you see it instantly. What musicians
or composers will learn from, in Western musical history, isn’t always exactly
what preceded them. Certainly they’ll have to hear what just preceded
them; they’ll be brought up with it and they will react to it. What
I have done in many ways probably is a reaction away from what preceded me.
I felt very uncomfortable with twelve-tone and serial music. I felt
very uncomfortable with John Cage’s music. I’ve grown to respect both
those kinds of musics for what they are, and I’ve come to realize that I
definitely am not those people! So the music that I gravitated towards
can be found in Western terms particularly in that early period, and also
in the music of Béla Bartók, Igor Stravinsky, Debussy and Ravel.
* * *
BD: Music is a
purely audio kind of thing. Should concerts of your music, or any music,
SR: In many respects,
standard concert television is generally pretty boring. There’s no
question about it. It can, even on good stereo speakers, be a very
questionable medium as to whether you really want to look at that rather
than simply listen to it. In terms of what I do, I’ve seen some of
the concert videotapes. When I performed at Brooklyn Academy of Music,
they videotape everything as part of an archive, so I’ve seen it, and we
did a concert at Harvard, at the Sanders Theatre, and they videotaped it
with a stereo sound system, and I had that to look back on. I found
that after a while I was getting bored looking at it, but that it was very
interesting for a while. And I have done television programs for the
BBC and for the ORF in Austria, and there’s some discussion now about some
American projects. I think that my music comes across best on television
when it’s inter-cut with discussion, the kinds of things we’re doing now
because television works supremely well with the human face very large, and
talk. It’s a marvelous psychological medium, a personal medium, an
intimate medium. Classical music, concert music, my music, has duration
to it, which, done without the fancy cutting is boring; with the fancy cutting,
it’s laborious. [Both laugh]
BD: So you can’t
SR: Well, you can
win if you simply realize that really you only want to present moments musicaux. You just want
to have parts of things done, interspersed with discussion about it, which
becomes much more interesting. People get the feeling for it, and then
may want to go on to the real thing, meaning the the audio recordings and
the concert performances. As television moves on, as the medium of
recordings, videos, music videos, goes on, I think it’s going to have, and
is already beginning to have, an effect on what we call music theater.
I can imagine that sometime in the future I would do something specifically
for a kind of music video. I don’t know what that is at all, but I can
imagine sometime in the future doing that, maybe with a dancer, maybe with
someone in the theater, where you will be making a video just the way pop
music videos are made. And I think some pop videos are great!
Some of them are terrible, and the key to a lot of their success is that
they’re about three or four minutes.
BD: Should we do
this even in the concert hall — have a little discussion
and a little demonstration?
SR: Oh, no!
It is death in the concert hall! I almost made some serious enemies,
refusing to do that one. The New York Philharmonic inaugurated that
in the early seventies, with Boulez. The idea that you play a piece
and then discuss it is simply killing whatever magic there may be in the piece
BD: But that’s
backwards. You should discuss it and then play it; or even discuss
it with illustrations, and then play it.
SR: No, I think either one is just deadly.
I believe a concert is a concert is a concert. You come in, you sit
down, they play the music; you listen to it, you love it, you hate it, you
leave, period. Later, or well before but preferably later; the next
day, that is. This is what we actually do as an ensemble when we tour,
and what I do when I’m asked to do these things, if I can possibly control
the situation. Let’s say you’re at University X or at City Y.
The day after the concert, in the afternoon, I basically will play recordings
of something that was not on the program, pass out the score of what was
on the program and what is being played on the recordings, and then answer
any and all questions. It’s usually much better than simply presenting
your own ideas to people who you’re not sure if that’s really what they want
to hear or not. I really do enjoy doing that. You can say a great
deal about music, but to say it at the time of the concert accomplishes two
things — it kills the concert and blurs the content
of what you’re saying, and turns it into an apologetic which becomes highly
emotionally charged and doesn’t get any information across. It’s the
worst of all possible worlds. People learn nothing, nor do they have
any joy in the concert.
BD: Should there
be copious program notes in the booklet?
SR: I write copious
program notes because copious program notes are very quiet. They don’t
say anything to you and they don’t open their mouths during the performance.
Those who are interested in it can peruse them, but then it’s a voluntary,
volitional thing, which can be done whenever the listener feels it’s appropriate
to do that. Once you start having a little tête-a-tête with the audience,
then the wheels grind to a halt and the theater is turned into a lecture
BD: Should you
be talking about your music at all? Shouldn’t your music just talk
SR: Well, yes,
but I find it interesting to read program notes. I find it interesting
to hear composers on the radio, or if they’re very interesting to me, to
talk in situations when they give a lecture or respond to questions.
I think it’s something that’s of interest to people who are more than casually
interested and want to go a little bit further. The same could be true
of someone who writes a book or paints a painting. All of these works
must stand on their own! There’s no question. It’s not a choice.
They either stand on their own or they die, period, next case. But
if you like them, if you find them of interest, it will be very interesting
for you to address questions to, and hear the answers of the person who did
* * *
should people know about The Desert Music
before they encounter it?
SR: One thing they
ought to know about The Desert Music
before they encounter it is what the words say. The text was written
by William Carlos Williams, who is a poet that I loved since I was sixteen.
I walked into a bookstore of remaindered poetry books and picked up one that
had an author whose name seemed to be the same forward and backwards — and
for no other reason. That was Paterson
by William Carlos Williams, and I have been reading his works ever since.
The poetry is not a series of complete poems, but rather selections from
poems taken because I really wanted to have a text that I felt that I could
say, and intend, with no qualifications from beginning to end. I had
to create that. Much as I like Williams’ work, I had to place it in
a somewhat different order to arrive at what I wanted to arrive at.
So in a sense, what I have excerpted is a kind of subtext. All the
poems are taken from work that he did in the last ten years of his life.
He was a full-time doctor in Rutherford and Paterson, New Jersey. When
Ezra Pound, his very, very best friend, went to Europe, Dr. Williams stayed
home. Much of his poetry arises out of American speech rhythms.
The text of The Desert Music is
drawn from a few poems, one of which is called The Orchestra, and it furnishes the basic
you ever going to write an opera?
SR: So far, no.
Maybe. [Laughs] I’ll never be an opera composer. I might
be a composer who writes an opera or two, or a piece of music theater of
one sort of another.
BD: What’s the
SR: The difference
is between, let’s say, Wagner and Stravinsky. One of them is an opera
composer, and one of them is a composer who wrote The Rake’s Progress, and Renard and Mavra.
BD: What’s the
difference between opera and music theater?
SR: Nowadays, quite
a bit. MTV is a form of music theater. The use of television,
the kinds of thing Laurie Anderson does are in that land in-between.
BD: Do you watch
SR: Sometimes, sure! Absolutely, yes.
Late at night I’ll put it on when I get ready to go to bed, sometimes.
Or if I’m in a hotel that has it, yeah. I don’t sit in front of it
for hours. There are teenagers who have that as the wallpaper of their
room! I’m curious to see what goes on around me. I can imagine
people hating it, and they’re absolutely right about ninety percent of it.
But it’s like taking the pulse of the life around you. I don’t want
to be an ostrich; I don’t think we gain anything by that. You can reject
it totally, and most of it is, indeed, prime grist for the mill, but better
to reject what you’ve seen, rather than just to know that it exists and think
it’s going to give you the creeps — which it probably will! [Laughs]
I think “music theater” is a
much more; it is a term to accommodate all the new forms that are arising
now, where the word opera seems somehow misplaced. I, personally, don’t
enjoy the opera from Mozart through Wagner, and very little besides that.
The operas I enjoy are The Rake’s Progress,
Threepenny Opera, a little bit of
Bluebeard’s Castle, some Monteverdi,
and that’s about it.
BD: And those are
not the ones that get done every day at the Met!
SR: No, those are
not the ones that get done every day at the Met. And what’s more, the
vocal style in some of them — certainly the Threepenny Opera — was purposely done
to avoid and deflect the bel canto
voice. So the first thing that I would address in a piece of music
theater would be the vocal style. It would have to be a style that
was amplified, but that has become such a simple thing to deal with that
it’s hardly worth discussing. I don’t have any projects in mind, but
if someone five years ago had said, “Are you going to write a large piece
for chorus and orchestra that lasts fifty minutes and be a setting of an
American poet?” I would have said, “What, are you crazy?” But here
it is! [Both laugh] And it’s perhaps for me the most important
thing I’ve ever done. I don’t rule out things; I just don’t have any
projects right now.
BD: Are you looking
forward to when The Desert Music
is not the biggest thing you’ve ever done?
SR: I said “most
important” and for various reasons, but I think that
the fact that it’s a large piece is not the reason why it is so good.
I don’t imagine using larger forces, but I suppose it could happen.
The nice thing about using such a large ensemble and having it be successful
is that it gave me the sense that anything is possible, that there was nothing
out there that I couldn’t handle. That was very personally gratifying.
Ultimately, that’s of no interest to anybody except me, but since I’m talking
right now, I will say that I did get the feeling that, “Great,
anything’s possible!” And that’s a nice feeling
to have. It doesn’t mean that the next piece will be still bigger.
As a matter of fact, of the two pieces that followed it, one was a sextet
for percussion and two keyboards which was a commission from the French government
for the Nexus Ensemble and from Laura Dean, the dancer and choreographer;
and the other piece is for Richard Stoltzman called New York Counterpoint for multiple clarinets,
one live and the rest on tape. It’s a follow-up to the Vermont Counterpoint that Ransom Wilson
did with flutes. There are also pieces that my ensemble will do, and
they’re small pieces. There are things that you can accomplish in chamber
music that can’t possibly be done by an eighty-nine piece orchestra and twenty-seven
voice chorus! It’s precisely that detail that is very important to
me. There are things that you can try, that you can work out, in the
smaller context that may be instructive for larger pieces but which could
never be arrived at. You could never clarify yourself about them while
working with an orchestra. Right now, I am again writing an orchestra
piece for Saint Louis which will be done in there and at Carnagie Hall, and
after Saint Louis comes the San Francisco Symphony which Michael Tilson Thomas
will conduct in their seventy-fifth anniversary season next year.
BD: Do you ever
write anything just for you, not on commission?
I did up to Octet was done that way.
But I must be candid with you and tell you that what I do is figure out what
it is I want to do, and then go out and try to find somebody to commission
BD: That probably
makes the best piece of music.
SR: It does, it
does. I’m very thankful that I’m able to do that, because there was
a time when I had a piece in mind, I’d try to get a commission and people
would say, “Why don’t you just come and play it?” It’s nice to get paid
for basically what one wants to do.
BD: Should there
be more government subsidy of the arts?
SR: Yes, and I
would say that it would fall directly into radio. I say that as someone
whose income is probably between seventy-five and eighty-five percent European.
This is not because the Europeans have such a refined sense of what it is
I do and the crude Americans can’t figure it out, but because, as I discussed
with my friend Peter Clancy recently, the budget for music at the West German
Radio in Cologne in any given calendar year is considerably higher than the
entire NEA budget for music for the entire United States of America
— even in the years before President Reagan, when we had a much
larger National Endowment. Where does the money come from? It
comes from taxes.
SR: If you’re a
human being in England, I think it’s seventy-five dollars a head per year;
if you’re married, it’s a hundred and fifty dollars a household on the assumption
that you have a radio and TV set. If you begin to multiply that by
two hundred million people or even a hundred million households, you begin
to see that some very, very large sums of money would fall into the hands
of our public or private radio. That would enable them to do what the
European radio does, which is to create a concert life in the cities in which
they are. The Desert Music
was played at the BBC Proms, which is the biggest series of concerts that
happens in London in the summer. They have over a month of continuous
program at the Albert Hall, which is a huge, seven thousand seat hall.
The BBC Symphony is one of the better orchestras in England; Boulez was one
of their conductors. And this is entirely a tax-supported endeavor!
We don’t have that. I think the NBC Symphony under Toscanini was the
closest thing, and of course, that was a privately supported enterprise.
But that is the biggest difference that I, as a practical musician, have
found. It is easier, and it has been easier over the years, to take
my ensemble to Cologne than it is to California, simply because there is
a sponsor that we know. It is the same in Stuttgart, Berlin, London
or Amsterdam, but not in California where one must go looking not only for
NEA support — which, while it’s quite nice, is very
modest — one must look to the famous private sector,
which is the American way. While I have benefited from it, I think
we have something to learn from the Western Europeans. As a realist,
I don’t expect it to come to pass in America in the foreseeable future; certainly
not under the present administration.
* * *
BD: If a young
composer comes to you and says, “I want to get started in writing,” what
kind of advice do you give him or her?
SR: Whatever you
do, keep working. Don’t get dissuaded and make just one piece.
When one piece is double bars down, get the paper out and go on to the next
one. That sounds like a cliché, but especially with young composers,
it is the biggest problem, because composers always need to keep on working.
Suddenly you turn around at a certain point in your life and say, “Oh, he’s
there, she’s there; they’ve created a body of work.” After that, I
will very often tell them to become involved in the performance of their
music. If they take the attitude that they must passively put it in
an envelope and send it out to performing organizations and hope that the
letters will come back positive, they very well may be disappointed.
They should instead not only perform their works, but write them with an
eye to their friends. Most composers are at music schools. One
of the best things that happened to me at Juilliard was simply the ability
to go into the lunchroom and put together a string quartet. That’s
the nature of any conservatory, of any large school where there are musicians
around. You can casually organize performance, and that is the sine qua non for a student
— and for a professional, too, for that matter. The key
is getting the pieces played, hearing what they sound like, finding what
the problems are in what you’ve written, as opposed to what you hear when
they are played and going on to the next piece. The more that you can
make that situation happen, the better, which is exactly how my ensemble
began. I simply had people I’d gone to school with, who would care
enough about what I did to play it. There was nobody else around, period.
BD: And it turned into a paying proposition?
SR: I lived.
I was growing up in the late fifties and sixties, where I was naïve
enough not to really imagine what that would lead to. I remember my
mother telling me, “Why don’t you write some pop songs, dear? It’ll
tide you over.”
SR: I had nothing.
I had no smart answer to reply to that because, in fact, the ensemble seemed
to me simply a very recherché
labor of love that had precisely zero commercial potential. It wasn’t
until 1972 that I became able to pay the rent and really support myself as
a performer of my own music.
BD: I’m surprised
your mother said, “Write some pop songs,” rather than, “Go out and get a
Well, she was a pop singer. My mother wrote [sings] “Love is a simple
thing.” She was involved in Broadway theater, in shows called New Faces, a series in the thirties and
forties and fifties. So that was her attitude. My father probably
would have taken your line of thought exactly, and did! [Both laugh]
BD: Thank you for
being a composer.
SR: Well, thank
you for saying so.
I always enjoy talking to composers. It’s special.
SR: Good, I’m glad
you feel that way. Not everybody feels that way! [Laughs]
Reich’s Agent (who had been listening to the
conversation): You touched on some topics that were a little
more cosmic than some of the ones we usually get!
===== ===== =====
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===== ===== =====
We now move ahead exactly one decade. It was ten years and
one month later that we met again (November, 1995), and when I mentioned
that fact, Reich said that I looked familiar . . . . .
BD: Let’s talk
about the new piece, The Cave.
How did it come about and where did you get the idea? How much is visual
and how much is musical?
SR: What really happened first was Different Trains. In 1985 I got
a commission from Betty Freeman to do a piece for Kronos Quartet, and the
video artist Beryl Korot [photo with Reich at right] said to
me in about 1987, “Why don’t you use the sampling keyboard for Kronos?
They’ll love it, and you’re dying to use it.” So I did this piece which
introduced this idea of people speaking and musical instruments playing their
speech melody. I had been asked to do operas in the late 1970’s and
early 1980’s in Holland Festival and the Frankfurt Opera, and I said no.
SR: Because I had
absolutely no interest in writing an opera whatsoever. The idea of
bel canto voices on the stage and an opera orchestra in the pit is amusing
and totally inappropriate. I think Groucho Marx said it all.
BD: So it is inappropriate
for you as a composer?
BD: Is it inappropriate
for audiences today to go to and enjoy?
SR: No! I
don’t enjoy it, so how could I possibly do anything worthwhile for somebody
else? I don’t want to bore people. I then would scratch my head
and say, “This is ridiculous. People are offering me a really large
opportunity here and there ought to be something that I can come up with.”
Lo and behold, in the process of working on Different Trains, I began to think
— especially since it was a video artist who had suggested this
idea in the first place — if you could see the people whose voices I was
using, the interviewees, on large screens, and you could see the musicians
playing what these people said at the same time, you would have this very
interesting interaction between the live musicians onstage and these videotaped
interviews. And I thought, aha, “Open sesame!”
This is my entrée for musical theater, for opera. Now, if you
want to go back and talk about opera as such, I would say that I’ve learned
a great deal from listening and looking at Kurt Weill; certainly not to sound
like him, that would be absurd! Weill was a student of Busoni’s.
He certainly could had, with political connections, the divas du jour; he
could have had the Deutsche Oper, or whatever he wanted. He said, “No,
no, no, my orchestra will be banjos, saxophone, trap drums. And for
singers, I know this woman. She can’t really sing, but I think it’ll
SR: And the result
is a masterpiece that encapsulates the Weimar Republic through the choice
of orchestra and vocal style. So I think you can learn from that if
you’re going to do a piece of music theater/opera after that time, and indeed
before that. In Mozart’s time, it was necessary to have a voice that
could be heard over about thirty-five musicians, so of course, the voice
is what we call now a light operatic voice, but it’s still a fairly substantial
sound. Wagner introduces large numbers of brass and increases the size
of the orchestra; more strings have to come to balance the brass. An
enormous vocal production has to be created! And a special hall was
built to amplify the music, in those days it was a pre-electronic form of
amplification. All of which makes a great deal of sense! Then
this little thing — the microphone — was
invented, and it has had an enormous effect on vocal styles, particularly
in our popular culture where people can sing in what we call small voice,
non-vibrato, and be heard over a big band.
BD: Do you envision
the day when each of the audience members will have an earphone, to really
capture that sound individually?
SR: I never thought of such a thing in my life,
and you know, I’m not a techno nut! [Both laugh]
BD: Do you want
to use all of the techno that’s available?
SR: Not all, no.
I only use what suits my purposes. I think the problem with technology
is that people use it because it’s around. That is disgusting and stupid!
Please quote me.
BD: So your purpose
doesn’t change as more techno becomes available?
SR: Well, yes and
no. We live in a culture, we live in a society. Bach wrote music
for harpsichord which had no dynamic variations, and the entire Baroque period
of music has what we call “terraced dynamics”
which are reflected in the instrument of the time, which has no dynamics.
The piano introduces something which is ideally suited for music which is
lurching towards Romanticism, and the actual change of the structure of the
piano reflects very much the growth of Romantic music. I don’t have
a Romantic bone in my body! I’m not interested in any music from Josef
Haydn to Wagner. If it all disappeared tomorrow morning I wouldn’t
even know it! My interest in Western music begins in synagogue chant,
goes up to Johann Sebastian Bach, then jumps to Debussy, jazz, and the present.
BD: It makes a
SR: Well no, it
simply omits about a hundred and fifty years, which are, if you like that,
wonderful. But we live in a society that acts as if music began in
1750 and ended in 1930 or ’40! I find that rather strange. I’m
interested in the bulk of the historical period, from about 1200 or earlier,
up to 1750. That’s quite a chunk right there. And then we’ve
got quite a chunk of about a hundred years of music from Debussy onwards.
I think that if a composer is going to write an opera or music theater piece
today, they ought to ask themselves what is the orchestra that I need; not
what do they have in the pit in Houston, but what do I need for what it is
that I’m going to do? When Stravinsky did The Rake’s Progress, it was really a
commentary on Mozart opera, so he needed to have those kinds of forces, and
indeed, that’s what he’s got. When John Cage did Europera, which was basically a send-up
and a pastiche of the entire literature, he had to have operatic singers
and he had to have an orchestra that could play those original scores.
I’m doing neither one. So therefore, I have to decide what I need,
and that choice should be made on the musical ideas and the character of
the story that’s being told. So in The Cave, the vocal style is, on the
one hand, spoken voice reinforced by musical instruments to bring out the
inherent speech melodies, and on the other hand, singing by singers who are
in fact people when spent most of their lives singing what we call early
music, people who work with Waverly Consort and Paul Hillier and so forth.
The conductor was Paul Hillier, who’s world-famous as one of the great interpreters
of earlier music and the very beautiful music of Arvo Pärt, which in
itself refers back to earlier music. We’re living in a period when,
at last, Gregorian chant can be sold in pop stores! I’m delighted to
see that! I think it reflects a real musical truth.
BD: Is the music
that you write for everyone?
SR: I don’t know
of any music for everyone. Beethoven’s not for everyone, so why should
I be for everyone? I’m for those people who like what I do, and probably
who might like Baroque music, who might like jazz, who might like rock.
If you really love Sibelius and Mahler and John Adams, you probably won’t
like what I do.
BD: What if they
SR: Well, fine!
[Both laugh] But you asked me a question and I’m trying to give you
an honest answer. We diverged, but I’ve given you some general background
in thinking about the piece. The orchestra of The Cave is thirteen musicians plus four
singers. The instruments are two woodwind players who double all the
normal woodwind instruments. They’re show players from New York; normally
you’d need six woodwind players to do it — two flutes,
two oboes and two clarinets — plus a string quartet.
Also three keyboards — two pianos and one sampler,
which has basically got sort of a string sound in it during the actual performance.
BD: Are you participating
SR: No, I’m not
performing in The Cave because I’m
much better off at the mixing console, determining how it’s all going to
sound to the audience.
BD: That’s not
performing in it?
SR: Then in that
case, I am definitely performing in it, yes. What did I leave
Ah, how could I leave out percussion? Four percussionists, two of whom
are playing vibraphones more or less throughout, and two others who play
bass drum, claves, clapping, and occasionally literally typing on a computer
keyboard. That takes care of that side of it. The Cave is coming here to Chicago in
April at the Schubert Theater, through Chicago Performing Arts. I’m
delighted to see that that is happening here, because it’s an expensive show,
and that’s been the problem in traveling around with it. It did play
all over Europe, and it did play in New York City, at BAM. But it’s
a piece conceived in the late eighties, as many large operas were, and saw
the light of day in the early nineties when they just snuck under the shrinking
economic door. Now it’s very difficult for it to be done. We
are bringing it in a slightly reduced version to Chicago, and then later
to Los Angeles, without the multi-tiered set that you see in the photograph,
but with the singers and musicians onstage, simply on the floor, and the
screens above them, to make it possible to travel with the show. The
relationship between the music and the video is about as close as is humanly
imaginable. When you see people speaking in the interview sections,
you see and hear the musicians doubling their speech. There are pre-recorded
string tracks that give them the tempo, so that they can keep up with the
video and stay in sync with it, and so that the conductor can stay in sync
BD: Does this mean
that each performance will be an exact cookie-cutter duplicate of the previous
SR: In terms of
tempo, yes, but in terms of nuance and notes and feeling and everything else
that makes a musical performance different, every one is different than the
other. To say that any musical performance which involves a tape is
going to necessarily be like playing a recording is absurd. The tape
part stays the same, but the tape part, outside of the speaking voices, is
barely there. It’s mixed in. There’s a string track that’s pre-recorded,
and it’s heard onstage, and you hear it, too. But if you measured it
acoustically, it’s probably twenty percent of the string sound, and nothing
of anything else. So it’s a small part of what you’re hearing.
Different Trains is much more pre-recorded
in performance than The Cave is,
and that seems to work pretty well, and changes enormously from performance
to performance. Also, amplifying something is so complex in every acoustical
space that no two performances of any piece are the same. I was just
at a performance of Electric Counterpoint
last night in San Francisco with fifteen guitar players, all live, and that
was marvelous! So, it can be done in different ways. Anyway,
to get back to your question about video, Beryl Korot is a remarkable artist
whose work was seen in New York a lot in the seventies and early eighties.
She became involved in painting for a while, and then went back to video.
She did two major pieces, Dachau 1974,
and Text and Commentary. The
first involved shots taken at the former concentration camp outside of Munich,
and the second involved shooting five woven pieces that she wove out of linen.
The exhibit at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York, had the woven pieces,
drawings, and five channels of video which document her weaving of these
pieces from a perspective of about an inch and a half away, sometimes.
The different channels were all independent; it wasn’t like five TV monitors
all showing you Dan Rather. It was five separate decks feeding five
separate monitors. The time relationships between them was very contrapuntal,
with similar material in a canonic relationship. The first and fifth
monitors would have similar stuff, the second and fourth would be slightly
different, and the one in the center would be completely different than the
other five. The timed relationships and shifting was related material,
always sort of moving on and giving a sort of narrative. In the woven
pieces, it was starting at a distance and sort of seeing how it was done,
and ending up with each thread looking like sort of like a row of tombstones
that were enormous.
BD: How is someone supposed to be able to take all
this in at one shot?
SR: These pieces
that have nothing to do with The Cave.
I’m telling you about pieces she did before. The Cave takes that idea, blows
it up on giant screens and puts it into a theater with totally different
material — Americans, Israelis and Palestinians.
On at least two of the screens you’ll see a talking head, i.e. the head shot
of something speaking. On the other screens you’ll see a bit of the
background. [Demonstrating with a page of the printed material which
accompanies the CD] Now here, you and I are looking at a shot of this
Hopi Indian kid which was shot in Austin, Texas, who was sitting in front
of a musical blackboard. What Beryl did was to focus in, on the other
three screens, on the musical blackboard, and then literally write (with
a computer mouse) what the guy was saying on the musical staves as he was
saying it. “I knew growing up all along that I was Indian, and I was
Hopi, but I have no idea who Abraham is.” So the relationship between
the video and the music is that everything relates to the documentary source.
Someone is speaking, and you see that person on two screens. On the
other three screens, you will see some little bit of their clothing.
Painters are always very fond of using some little bit of something in the
background; some detail that exists in the full head shot is blown
up and becomes a kind of mise-en-scene for that person speaking. You
may not immediately recognize that it’s the earring or a bit of the wallpaper
or a flower sitting in a vase next to the speaker, but then you say, “Oh,
that’s what that is.” As the piece goes on, she begins to play with
this in a more abstract way. It is fairly simple in the first act,
a little bit more abstract in the second, and very abstract in the third,
but what she’s dealing with is something that was on the original recording.
On that recording is also the soundtrack, and I’m dealing in the music with
their spoken voices. So when you see it, it’s a seamless, unified whole.
It’s no wham-bam John Cage multimedia trip at all! It’s absolutely
the antithesis of that! It’s totally focused, and you take in all five
screens as one gestalt with no problem because the audience is taken into
account. The layout of the screens is such that when you’re sitting
in the audience, you can do that because you’re far enough away.
BD: When the idea
was germinating in your head, did the music come first and then the visual,
did the visual come first and then the music, or did it all come together
and germinate as an entity?
music comes from the words, as it did in Different Trains. The
first thing we had to do was to go to West Jerusalem to record Israeli Jews
for the first act of The Cave, then
go to East Jerusalem and Hebron to record Palestinian Muslims for the second
act, and to New York City and Texas to record Americans for act three.
Because the music comes from the speech, and literally and exactly from the
speech, I couldn’t write a note — except for the very
opening percussion music, which I did write. I literally sat on my
hands for six months, chomping at the bit, waiting for us to raise enough
money so that we could go to the Middle East, make the recordings, so I could
come home, listen to them in detail, choose the ones that I was going to
use, find out where the speech melodies were by listening to them over and
over and over again, and then writing them down by playing them at the piano
and putting them into my music notebook. Then, at long last, I could
begin composing! There are some settings of Genesis, but everything
you hear a speaker say comes from that spoken speech melody. I write
it down, and then I have to figure out what harmonies and instrumentation
are possible, given these notes.
BD: Is that your
SR: That is exactly
the libretto! The libretto basically grew as the piece grew.
It was impossible, given the nature of what we were doing, to have everything
written down, since none of it really came from anything written; it came
from speech. The only thing that we chose independently of that were
settings of Genesis, which tell the story.
BD: Did your musical
ideas ever influence the selection of what speeches to use, or what parts
of the speech to use?
I had to do two things when choosing these little bits of speech. I
had to tell a story, but I also had to find those bits of people speaking
where they get involved enough in what they’re saying, to say it in a musical
tone of voice. Some people spoke marvelously intellectual, very, very
interesting ideas, but were boring to listen to; not in a musical tone of
voice, but a flat, monotonous tone. Those segments were thrown in the
trash immediately, because prima musica
— first you’ve got to have good music. So it was very much a kind of
composing straightjacket. I had to find things that would tell the
story of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar and so forth, but I had to find that very
information said in a musical tone of voice. Even more particularly,
because I found that each of the first two movements of the piece were going
to be in A minor, I had to find material that would lead to the key of A
minor! So it was composing in several straightjackets! But that,
as Stravinsky remarked, can be a very, very helpful way of working.
The more specific you are and the more limited you are, the freer you are,
and I would subscribe to that one hundred percent.
BD: When was this
SR: This was first
performed at the Wiener Festwochen,
the Vienna Festival, in May of 1993.
BD: I just wonder,
if the impact on the audience is it going to change now because of the events
last week in Israel?
SR: No, the piece
is the piece. Is The Magic Flute
going to change because the German situation changes? No, it’s over
with; it’s done with; it’s finished.
BD: But your work
is dealing with this specific conflict.
SR: It’s not dealing
with the death of Yitzhak Rabin in any way, shape, or form. It’s a
horrible tragedy, and I was in tears during part of it, especially hearing
his granddaughter speak. The only thing The Cave has to do with the death of
Yitzhak Rabin is when Bill Clinton was eulogizing him, he said, “Shalom,
haver.” Goodbye, friend. Haver is the same three letter root
in Hebrew as Hevron. It’s not Hebron, it’s Hevron. And so haver/Hevron
are both the root of friend. In Arabic, it’s halil, El Halil.
That’s the name of the town, and it also means the friend. In Arabic,
Abraham is called Halil Allah. So paradoxically, this very difficult,
very thorny, unfriendly city, which is becoming actually the seat of the
conflict in that neck of the woods, is actually the town of Friendship.
BD: Will there
ultimately be a town of Friendship?
SR: I’m not a prophet;
I’m only a poor composer. So I have no idea.
BD: I hope you’re
better than a poor composer! [Laughs]
SR: Well, I mean,
compared to a prophet!
BD: Given the way
that this all has turned out, are you satisfied with your role in composing
the piece, or do you want to do more? Do you wish you could have done
more, or had more control of it?
SR: I’ve had as
much control as any human being could have of anything they ever did!
I don’t understand your question.
BD: By being forced,
as you said, in these straightjackets?
SR: I chose them!
I chose them. No one told me to do The Cave. As a matter of fact,
everyone asked me to do other things. I’ve chosen exactly what to do
and I’ve chosen how to do it. And I’ve done it according to the disciplines
that were chosen and laid on my myself, just as becoming a composer was a
discipline I laid on myself. I don’t do anything that isn’t a discipline
I didn’t lay on myself. Fortunately, I’m not working for any company
or any newspaper or anything like that! That’s not my problem.
BD: I see.
You’re never angry that you’ve imposed this on yourself?
BD: Has there been
good reaction to the work?
SR: I presume you’ve
gotten a press kit, so I’ll leave you to look at that and form your own opinion.
BD: But don’t you
get different impressions of the audience than the critics or the press will
lead us to believe the next morning?
SR: I have seen,
I guess, about thirty performances of the piece; it was all over Europe and
then it was in New York. There are always a few people who walk out
in a harrumph. I don’t know whether they were expecting Wozzeck or what they were expecting,
but basically we’ve gotten very positive reactions. We’ve gotten a
lot of positive reactions from the younger segment of the audience.
That’s what I’ve noticed myself.
BD: Is it at all
disappointing to have a purely aural presentation of this on the compact
disk, or should it always be viewed on the film?
SR: I would certainly
love to see a video done of this piece, and I think that in the next five
or six years, Beryl Korot will be able to bear to go back to it and be able
to afford to have the equipment to enable and completely transform the work
into a single-channel, so the piece can be performed with less expense.
If the world did not have the economic crunch that it does, then The Cave would be traveling around much
more than it is, and I would be a little more sanguine about its future.
Any large theatrical work, and many operas by many of my contemporaries as
well, are all languishing because of the fact that there are severe constrictions
on production of musical works. So I’m very anxious to see a video
happen. But any musical theater work will live or die on the strength
of the music, moreso than on the video. If the music doesn’t work,
then I’ve failed. I obviously don’t believe that that’s the case, but
again, you and the listeners can judge that better than I can.
BD: You’ve mentioned
the financial constraints several times. Let me ask a more primitive
question — would your music be any different if there
were no financial constraints?
SR: No, no, no,
no! You misunderstood my point. There are no constraints on my
music whatsoever. The constraints that I’m talking about are simply
having The Cave produced in a theater.
BD: I understand
that, but if you knew, in going in, that there would be no problem...
When I went in, I didn’t think there would be! It was 1989, and there
were no constraints. We had a phenomenal number of performances.
We were in the Vienna Festival, we were at the Holland Festival, we were
at the Hebbel Theater in Berlin, we were at the Autumn Festival in Paris,
we were at the Theatre de la Monnaie in Brussels, we were at the South Bank
Center in London, and we were at the Brooklyn Academy of Music — some of
the best venues in the Western world. The piece did not languish.
I had expectations and then realizations of about forty high-profile, international
performances. It’s been touring in Italy, and now it’s going to Chicago
and then it’s going to go to Los Angeles. Nevertheless, if it were
on one screen, it would also go to Topeka. I’d like it to go to Topeka;
maybe I’m greedy! [Both laugh]
BD: You just want
to share it with as many people as possible.
SR: That’s right!
I certainly do, because other pieces of mine can travel quite easily.
I’d never been involved in a piece of music theater. This is something
that any composer who gets involved in opera will probably reflect to you,
because they want to see their operatic works produced as easily as a string
quartet, and of course that’s difficult to do. I would like other people
to do my work as frequently as possible, like any other composer!
BD: Has the problem
of wide circulation influenced you at all as far as your future work?
SR: Absolutely, absolutely! I’m a practical
musician and always have been. I’ve been, as you well know, a member
of a performing ensemble, which is heard on this recording. I’ve worked
with many other ensembles and I’m keenly aware of the realities when you’re
touring. I work with woodwind players who double on instruments, because
you can travel with two people rather than four or six. [Illustration
of stage-space required for individual forces at right.] And I dare
say, if you go back and look at the ins and outs of the different performances
of Messiah way back when, a lot of
those were exactly the same considerations — who was
in town, who was sick, who didn’t like him anymore, and blah, blah, blah.
This has affected music since music existed because music is people getting
together and playing. That said, Beryl and I are going to do a new work
in 1997. It’s commissioned by the city of Bonn and the city of Cologne,
and we’re going to work on one screen because one screen means it travels
and has legs, and more than one means it doesn’t! So constraint will
be on her side, and she has to deal with the fact that she wants to do this
kind of contrapuntal video in one screen. Fortunately she now has most
of the video in a computerized form, in a digital form, whereby you can have
multiple layers and multiple things going on within one screen. She
can enlarge something, transfer it to film, do it on one screen and still
have the basic lynchpin connection between her work and my work, i.e. the
kind of contrapuntal images and contrapuntal music that literally interlock.
What subject matter it will be for the new piece I have no idea, but we will
have an idea, I would say, about six months from now, because that’s when
we’ve got to begin! [Laughs]
BD: So you are
confident that the idea will come!
SR: Oh, yes.
That’s exactly how The Cave happened.
The formal idea was set and we had no idea what it was going to be about.
We had a meeting and in about five minutes we said, “The cave of Machpelah!
What else?” [Laughs]
BD: Was there ever
a time when you were writing The Cave
that you got a real good idea for a woodwind quintet or something else?
SR: No, no, I don’t
work that way. There are composers who work on two or three things
at a time; I have never been able to do that. I work on one piece,
doggedly, doggedly, doggedly, and then it’s done and I go on to the next
BD: Never a time
when just a little idea popped out unexpectedly?
SR: No. No,
I’m just not that way. I close my eyes and I don’t see anything.
I have no imagination whatsoever! [Laughs]
strongly] You said that, not me! Well, when you’re looking at
the piece, do you see the whole piece or do you just see the segment of the
piece that you’re working on?
SR: With The Cave it became necessary to do that,
and that brings up a very interesting topic. If you’re working on a
long, extended piece, and you work with an ear to harmony — as I do; I’m
not a twelve-tone or serial composer — the question of how to unify the work
harmonically is very important. I couldn’t, as in many other works,
have a kind of harmonic structure which pre-existed the work. Music for 18 is built on a series of
chords, Sextet and Desert Music have harmonic armatures,
if you will, just the way the works of the Classic and Baroque periods do,
with passacaglias and so on. In any event, this was not possible here.
So I began to think about where this thing is going harmonically. What
solved the question was in the documentary material. In our field trips,
we finally got from Jerusalem to Hebron — not an easy thing to do.
It’s a very difficult place to get to, not in terms of travel, but we had
to liaise the goodwill of the Israeli military and the Muslim clergy at the
same time, and this was a difficult thing to do! [Both laugh]
We finally got there and we had about half an hour; they allowed us to be
actually inside the mosque that’s built on top of the cave. Historically,
the cave is reputed to be a plot of land that Abraham bought from the Hittites
four thousand years ago to bury his wife, Sarah. Eventually he himself
was buried there, and then his son, Isaac, and Isaac’s wife, Rebecca, and
his grandson, Jacob, and Jacob’s first wife, Leah. In the Jewish mystical
tradition, it’s said that the place is one of the entrances to the Garden
of Eden, and that Adam and Eve are also buried there. I know a lot
of mystical stories about places that are very rich in mythology and religious
background. Two thousand years after the time of Abraham, at the time
of Christ, Herod built an enormous stone wall around this already famous landmark.
That wall is still standing; it’s the only freestanding Herodian structure.
The Western Wall in Jerusalem is only one wall; this has all four intact.
In the eighth century, the crusaders came and built a Byzantine church on
top of Herod’s walls. In the twelfth century, the Muslims came and built
a mosque on top of the Crusaders, on top of Herod, on top of the cave, which
is typical of the architecture in the Middle East! You see these layers
of history in the stones. We finally got to the space and were in this
large mosque that now sits on top of the cave, which is like many large cathedrals
and other religious spaces, or train stations for matter
— with hard surfaces, very large and very reverberant, and a full
of a kind of tone you can almost hear. The tone is created by the murmuring
of Hassids praying in the corner, Muslims sitting on the floor studying the
Koran, Israeli soldiers bantering between each other. If you could
look at all the sound waves, this sort of murmuring sound gets reinforced
to the resonant frequency of the room. And it turned out to be A minor.
So I thought to myself, the first act literally ends with a shot inside this
room, and you hear it on the CD, this sort of beautiful murmuring, which
is in A minor, which I then reinforce with the strings and the bass clarinet.
Again, the second act goes to the same place, because this is the only place
on earth that Jews and Muslims, with a great deal of friction, nevertheless
share and worship under the same roof. So it was right in terms of
the story to go there, and there is this sound in the room. Then I
recorded the mukree of al-Aqsa Mosque, who begins the second act chanting
the Koran. We had made arrangements through intermediaries to meet,
and we made a list of suras, parts of the Koran for him to chant to tell
the story. He started chanting — with his incredible voice, as you
can hear — and he’s in A minor! I thought, well, I’m being told something
here! [Laughs] So then I had to find fragments of speech which
would tell the story, which were melodically animated, and enough of them
that were leading to or in the key of A minor to establish this. You
can hear this most pointedly in the first act, when you hear Nouri Simon,
one of the speakers, scholars in Israel we interviewed, talking about Ishmael
in A minor. Since it’s a marvelous description — and
a very melodic one — of Ishmael, it sets up a sort
of arch form. Ishmael is introduced at the very beginning of the piece
and then comes back, and then leads into the chanting at the death of Abraham
in A minor, and then this A minor murmur really issues a long, tonic cadence,
which you need after this long piece. So the answer to your question
is that yes, I had to find a way of doing it which was different than what
I usually do, which is to sit down at the piano before anything is done and
say, “Okay, this piece is going to begin here and move there and then come
back to this.” I usually create series of arch forms, which I’m very
fond of, which are harmonically structured. Here, the documentary material
was literally telling me, “Look, I’m in A minor!” When I got to the
third act, there is no cave in America. The cave was unknown before
the horrible massacre that happened a year after we did the piece.
No one in America had heard of the place. So it would be quite inappropriate
to have a third act also end in A minor. Because of a number of speech
cadences which led to C minor — which is sort of an
interesting relationship — it goes to C minor, and
the end of The Cave is in C minor
BD: The whole resonance
of that place is A minor!
SR: Oh, it is the
place. It is definitely the place. It’s an architectural fact
that if you could sprinkle dust on a space and see the sound waves in it,
the sound waves literally go out and hit one wall and bounce back on the
next. Depending on the distance between the walls, and the shape of
the ceiling to the floor — all the architectural realities — the acoustics
are such that it will reinforce some frequency. It will be just the
right length for that wave to evenly hit and be reinforced. If it doesn’t
hit evenly, then it gets damped and it doesn’t reverberate.
BD: I wonder if
it is even more than just that place?
SR: If you want
to get mystical, that’s fine, and I’m willing to entertain such thoughts.
But I’m giving you acoustics; I’m giving you physical reality, and the fact
is that the resonant frequency of the Haram al Halil, the Cave of Machpelah,
the mosque that sits on top of that site in Hebron happens to be in A minor
based on its physical structure. Anybody could be talking or saying
or doing anything in there; it’s always going to be in A minor ‘til the end
of time, ‘til the building falls down because that’s in the walls and the
space and the actual physical structure.
* * *
BD: What is the
purpose of music?
SR: I don’t entertain
such questions. If you don’t know now, you shouldn’t be in the business
you’re in! [Laughs]
BD: I know what
it is for me; I’m just curious as to what it is for you.
SR: I don’t ever
think that way. Let’s put it this way, if I wasn’t a composer, I wouldn’t
know what to do with myself. There’s nothing else in life that has
anywhere near the meaning it does. I think I could best paraphrase
J. S. Bach. He said the purpose of music was to the glory of God, and
to refresh the spirits of music lovers. I think that’s pretty good;
I’ll go for that.
BD: Pretty good
example, J. S. Bach.
SR: No, it’s what
he says that I like.
BD: Do you try to emulate Bach in any other way?
SR: I think you
can learn from your betters, and he’s certainly the top of the list.
In Tehillim, I listened a lot to
Christ lag in Todesbanden, and just
became keenly aware of the character. He uses the tromba, a kind of Baroque brass wooden
instrument to double the voice, which gives it a certain quality. That
led to my considering that in the first part of Tehillim it would be a clarinet double,
and then the second section it would immediately switch to double the oboe
and English horn doubling the voices, which changes the character of the
voice, even though it’s the same singers. The arch form, A-B-C-B-A,
which I picked up initially from the Bartok Fourth and Fifth Quartet, you can also find in the
Cantatas of Bach, and before that as well. There are many things I
have learned from in the period from Perotin to Bach, and that’s why I’m
attracted to that music. There are techniques in there —
isorhythmic motets, the whole isorhythmic principle, the augmentation
of voices and organ — I could go on and on. This
is the period of musical history where I do my studies, and constantly am
restudying and relearning Perotin’s counterpoint. I’m now writing a
piece which is stealing from Perotin in an actually shameless way!
And I’m spending a lot of time with Sederunt
Principes, and Viderunt Omnes,
the two huge, four-part organa,
which are some of the most beautiful music I know, period. I’ve been
going over his overlapping of voices. And the quality of the tunes
he writes; he had a marvelous gift, that sort of weaving in and out of itself.
It’s very related, technically, to a lot of things I learned from the period.
So yes, of course I learned from his music. It would be terrible not
BD: Is this bringing
music full circle, back to where it started?
SR: Well, music
started long before J. S. Bach, long before Gregorian chant and long before
synagogue chant. I don’t even know where it began; we weren’t around
then. But I think that insofar as we have a recorded musical history
in the West, that’s a great trove of incredible music — as
well as music outside of the West. I personally have been fortunate
enough to study in Africa, learn Balinese music in this country, Hebrew chants
in New York and Jerusalem. I think that to continue one’s studies and
to pursue the things that you love is a marvelous way of growing old, and
a good way to keep your work in shape, too.
BD: Speaking of
growing old, about a year from now you will be sixty.
SR: Sixty years
old, that’s right.
BD: Are you pleased
with where you are at nearly sixty?
SR: I feel I’m
very fortunate indeed. I look around me, and I really must thank God
for the good fortunes which have come my way. I hope I’m worthy of
what I’ve gotten, and can continue to move along. Yes, I feel very
BD: Are you optimistic
about the future of music?
SR: We live in
a very dark time, actually, so it’s hard to be completely optimistic without
being foolish. But musically speaking, we’re sort of at the end of
a century now. I think a lot of people, a lot of other composers —
not myself — are sort of busy in fin-de-siècle
activities. It’s good to study all of music, but quoting it and rehashing
it in certain ways I find pointless. Some composers do it better than
others. Stravinsky’s retake of Pergolesi is great, but some other people’s
retake of other composers is less interesting.
BD: Do you have
any advice for younger composers coming along?
SR: What would
I say? Get involved in the performance of your music. Get involved
in the practical realities of it. It’s hard. We’re living at
a very different time. When I went to music school in the late fifties
and early sixties, there was one way of writing music, and that was the serial
way. Maybe through myself and others like me, it’s a very pluralistic
time now, for better or worse — probably for better,
I’d say. You have people doing what used to be called “New
Romanticism.” You have a few serial leftovers.
You have lots of proto-minimalist types. You have a lot of people who
are rightfully influenced by rock and roll and jazz. I find it hard
to take seriously any younger composer who doesn’t show a keen awareness
of and interest in some aspect of popular music. What that aspect is,
is entirely up for grabs. But I don’t think I have any advice to give.
I think that’s better done face to face, one on one.
BD: Thank you for
seeing me again, one on one.
SR: Thank you.
|Steve Reich has been called
"...America's greatest living composer." (The Village VOICE), "...the
most original musical thinker of our time" (The New Yorker) and
"...among the great composers of the century" (The New York Times).
From his early taped speech pieces It's Gonna Rain (1965) and Come
Out (1966) to his and video artist Beryl Korot's digital video opera
Three Tales (2002), Mr. Reich's path has embraced not only aspects of
Western Classical music, but the structures, harmonies, and rhythms of non-Western
and American vernacular music, particularly jazz. "There's just a handful
of living composers who can legitimately claim to have altered the direction
of musical history and Steve Reich is one of them," states The Guardian
Over the years, Steve Reich has received commissions from the Barbican Centre
London; the Holland Festival; San Francisco Symphony; the Rothko Chapel;
Vienna Festival; Hebbel Theater, Berlin; the Brooklyn Academy of Music for
guitarist Pat Metheny; Spoleto Festival USA; West German Radio, Cologne;
Settembre Musica, Torino; the Fromm Music Foundation for clarinetist Richard
Stoltzman; the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra; Betty Freeman for the Kronos
Quartet; and the Festival d'Automne, Paris, for the 200th anniversary of
the French Revolution.
Steve Reich's music has been performed by major orchestras and ensembles
around the world, including the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Michael
Tilson Thomas; New York Philharmonic conducted by Zubin Mehta; the San Francisco
Symphony conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas; The Ensemble Modern conducted
by Bradley Lubman; The Ensemble Intercontemporain conducted by David Robertson;
the London Sinfonietta conducted by Markus Stenz and Martyn Brabbins; the
Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Neal Stulberg; the BBC Symphony conducted
by Peter Eötvös; and the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by
Michael Tilson Thomas.
In 1994 Steve Reich was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters,
to the Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts in 1995, and, in 1999, awarded Commandeur
de l'ordre des Arts et Lettres. The year 2000 brought four additional
honors: the Schuman Prize from Columbia University, the Montgomery Fellowship
from Dartmouth College, the Regent's Lectureship at the University of California
at Berkeley, and an honorary doctorate from the California Institute of the
Arts. In 2007, Mr. Reich was awarded the Polar Music Prize by the Swedish
Academy of Music.
In April of 2009 Steve Reich won his first-ever Pulitzer Prize for Double
Sextet (2007). Commissioned by eighth blackbird, the 22-minute piece
received its world premiere on March 26, 2008 at the University of Richmond’s
Modlin Center for the Arts in Virginia. Scored for two each of flutes, clarinets,
vibraphones, pianos, violins and cellos, Double Sextet can be played
in two ways; either with twelve musicians or with six playing against a recording
of themselves. In 2008, Reich wrote his first piece for rock band set-up,
2x5, which premiered on the opening night of Manchester International
Festival on a double-bill with German electronic music legends Kraftwerk.
Steve Reich is published by Boosey & Hawkes.
- May 2010
Reprinted by kind permission of
Boosey & Hawkes
© 1985 & 1995 Bruce Duffie
These interviews were recorded in Chicago on October 9, 1985, and
November 9, 1995. Portions (along with recordings) were used on WNIB
in 1986, 1991, and 1996. This transcription was made and posted on
this website in 2010.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed
and posted on this website, click here.
winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical
97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as
a classical station in February of 2001. His interviews
have also appeared in various magazines and journals since
1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM.
You are invited to visit
his website for more information
about his work, including selected transcripts of other
interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would
also like to call your attention to the photos and information
about his grandfather,
who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.
You may also send him E-Mail with
comments, questions and suggestions.