In 1965 Steve Reich, then a young newly graduated US composer created a tape piece entitled Come Out from a recording he had made of a black preacher In San Francisco. He then spliced it up to create a short loop and ran it simultaneously on two different tape recorders. At first the loops remained in time yet gradually over the course of the next thirteen odd minutes the second player ran faster, revealing gradually increasing reverb as the piece fell out of phase with itself. This technique, which he dubbed phasing launched his much lauded career, in which he has continued to experiment with sound, musicians and structure over the last five decades.
Bob: What continues to interest you about music?
Steve: I can’t possibly answer that. I love music and I compose music, next question.
Bob: Well can you tell me about when you realised you wanted to be a composer?
Steve: I took piano lessons as a child but up until the age of 14 I never heard any music prior to 1750. Never heard any Bach, never heard any music after Wagner, never heard any Stravinsky or so on and I never heard any real jazz. I’d heard hit parade and top 40 and Broadway shows. At the age of 14 in rapid succession I heard the Rites of Spring, the 5th Brandenburg concerto and bebop, Charlie Parker Miles Davis and the drummer Kenny Parks. It was if someone said well you’ve lived in this house for 14 years and there’s this one room you haven’t seen. And I went in that room and I’m still living in that room today. That’s when I started taking lessons in percussion, that led eventually led to studying music at university and studying western music history and beginning to write a little bit and then with the encouragement of a musicologist and pianist William Austin I went to Julliard school of music in New York started to write a lot of music and get them played and then I went out to the West Coast and studied with Luciano Perio who was part of the whole serial music establishment along with Stockhausen and Boulez and in a sense Cage too. I did that until 1963 and then that was the end of my training.
I would say that my real work as a composer only really became clear when I was done with my student work. The first work that I keep and haven’t thrown away is It’s Going To Rain, which is a tape piece from 1965. It came out and that led to me transferring the technique from tape recorders of playing little cannons going in and out of phase with each other to live instruments. So piano phase 1967 was the first piece of instrumental music using this technique, which is still an important piece today.
Things have changed quite enormously since then, which I think you will hear.
Bob: Speaking of It’s Going to Rain to what extent do you find accident, happy accidents to be an important compositional tool?
Steve: Rarely, but when it happens you have to be there and hear it. The most recent case of that was in a piece called 2×5, which was performed by Bang on a Can and it uses rock instruments, two electric guitars, electric bass, piano and drum set. I use a composition program called Sibelius, and I use a sampler called Reason. When you write for the guitar often your notation sounds an octave lower than the way you have written it. But when I started working on this piece and hearing what I’d written it sounded to me these beautiful high chords and I thought gee this sounds too high, but it’s beautiful. So I sent it to Mark Stewart who is one of the guitarists with Bang on a Can who is a very amazing musician because on the one hand he is a trained cellist, an avant-garde guitarist who also reads, and the music director for Paul Simon. So he’s a genuine rock and roll musician and a genuine classical musician all into one. So I sent it to him and he said this is beautiful keep it. And I said that it would be too hard to play. He said don’t worry, and he suggested and we ended up using an octave transposer where a guitarist plays the notes through this pedal and it shoots the music up an octave above where its actually played. So we got these beautiful high ringing chords, which were in a sense an accident but I felt too were worth keeping.
Bob: It’s interesting too that initially it was the technology that assisted you with the idea for phasing and now it’s the technology that is assisting you to achieve your aims.
Steve: I have lots of pieces that don’t use any more technology than a microphone, like Music For 8 musicians or Drumming or the Desert Music, most of the pieces don’t uses these. I suppose Different Trains uses pre recorded voices along with live musical instruments, and of course that technique was used again in the most recent piece WTC 9/11, that’s recorded by Kronos and uses voices from 9/11, NYC police dept, the fire dept and friends and neighbours who all like me lived very close to Ground Zero. So if the shoe fits wear it. If you need technology to realise an idea then great, but very often musical instruments will do just fine.
Bob: You have used voice repeatedly in the past, what is it about the human voice that interests you?
Steve: Well there are many uses of voice. In Drumming and Music for 18 Musicians the voices are what’s called Vocalese, imitating the sounds of the instrument. So in Drumming you have singers imitating the sound of marimba and in Music For 18 Musicians you have singers imitating the sound of violin. And a lot of times in those pieces people listening say ‘I think I can hear singers,’ they think maybe they are hallucinating because the singers are mixed very low in the live performance, so they’re there and without them you’d think something was missing but, they’re not singing out the front.
But on the other hand after those pieces in 1981 I wrote a very important piece called Tehillim, which is a setting of some of the songs in ancient Hebrew, and there I have people singing words, just like people have been singing for thousands of years. Those singers can be heard, they are doubled with instruments, which is a very old technique, J S Bach doubles his voices with instruments, it makes the singers feel good. There’s an instrument they’re supporting the pitch, but also it colours the sound of their voice, so you get a blend. The first movement is clarinet and voice and the second movement is French oboe and English horn and voice. It almost sounds like they’re different singers it’s really just the instruments doubling them. So that’s a more normal use of voice that’s also present in Desert Music and Proverb and in Daniel Variations and You Are Variations. So there’s a lot of vocal music where there’s just people singing. That’s become a very important part of what I do. You have voices used pre recorded (It’s Going to Rain and Come Out), then you have voices pre recorded and mixed with live instruments (Different Trains and WTC 9/11) and then you have people singing such as Tehillim and the other pieces I’ve mentioned. So I’m very interested in the voice and very interested in drastically different ways of using the voice.
Bob: To what extent is the technique you use important to demonstrate to the audience and to what extent do you like them to be undercover so people have a purely emotional response?
Steve: I don’t ever try to demonstrate anything. I try to write good music. I try to write the best music I possibly can. As I’m the only one in the room as I’m writing, as I’m writing I tend to reject a lot. I’ve rejected quite a few things today before you called. My trashcan runneth over. There’s always more in the trash than there is in the music. I‘m very self critical and I want get the best possible piece I can. But the final principle is very simple. If I love it maybe you will too.
Bob: So some of the techniques you’ve utilised like phasing? They’re something for you to use, to develop the idea, and see where it goes?
Steve: You know everyone talks about phasing, that was 1971. 41 years ago was the last time I used phasing and I have no plans to ever use it again. So lets talk about what’s really going on. Phasing is just a technocrat word used to hide the real word, which is canon. Or round as in Frarajaka or Row Row Row Your Boat. Only instead of a certain point coming in with the second voice the two parts start together and they slide out of phase. Well after Drumming I said ‘enough of this, I’m not going to do this,’ but I still used cannon or round in most of the pieces I’ve ever written. You’ll hear it in Music for 18 musicians. Basically my music is filled with canons and rounds which is a very very old western technique, but because I used it in a new way, people talk about phasing, but phasing is long gone and is really only used in 4 or 5 pieces and that’s the end of it. What’s really going on in all the other pieces is canon or round of sometimes short patterns like Music for 18 Musicians or sometimes very long full blown melodies liked Tehillim or a lot of the vocal pieces.
Bob: What is it about Canons that continues to interest you?
Steve: What’s interesting about Canons is that a lot of the techniques of the Middle Ages are like empty vessels, they’re like a glass, you’ve got a glass in front of you. Well what are you going to pour into the glass? You can pour water into the glass, you can pour coke you can pour bourbon into the glass, you can pour gin into the glass, you can put whatever you like. It’s an empty vessel. What does a canon sound like? Well I have no idea. A canon is simply a sound, followed by itself at some rhythmic interval. That sound could be a recorded voice. That sound could be a piano, that sound can be whatever you like. So in other words it’s a very open vessel into which I can put very personal content, so that’s what fascinates me about that.
Bob: So when you listen back you your music do you hear what was happening around you at the time?
Steve: No I hear the music. And most of the pieces I really enjoy and I hope you will too.
A rare experience with America’s greatest living composer. The erudite, witty and frank Steve Reich will be joined by members of eighth blackbird for a bracing discussion as a prelude to an all-Reich concert featuring SteveReich, eighth blackbird, Eugene Ughetti, Speak Percussion and members of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.
30th of April 2012.
Reich Clapping Music
Reich Vermont Counterpoint
Reich Different Trains
Reich Drumming – Part One
Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, Melbourne Recital Centre
31 Sturt Street, Southbank.