Slow Motion Sound

A pioneer of minimalism, Steve Reich is perhaps the most important living composer, responsible for altering the way that people thing about time, tone, and color in regards to music. OTR spoke with Reich following the SOLI Chamber Ensemble's performance of his music during a Wednesday night showcase at St. David’s Church. His explanation of his latest work, Daniel Variations, which fuses the biblical story of Daniel with words and legacy of Daniel Pearl, is being reserved for a later entry closer to the album’s release next month on Nonesuch Records.

Off the Record: When someone is performing one of your pieces, do you expect variation? Do you want them to interpret the work in their own image?
Steve Reich: Absolutely. The pieces that were played last night I’ve performed hundreds of times with my own ensemble, and we play them differently each time. Other ensembles play them differently each time as well, and they play them differently than we do. Being 71 and watching these people that are in their mid-30s, what I get a kick out of is the ease they have with the music because they grew up with it. It’s proof to me that the music will live forever. Every kind of music is interpreted by the person who is playing it, for better or worse. I was lucky last night that everything was for the better.

OTR: Is it an awkward experience for you when you’re in attendance?
ST: Oh, sure. I’m not there 95 percent of the time, but when I am I want to hide under the bleachers most of the time. You never know how things are going to turn out. You can take any piece of music and make it sound terrible.

OTR: How do you think it would be different for these younger players to interpret some of your more recent work?
SR: When I was a student there was only one way to write music, and that was the way of [Karlheinz] Stockhausen and John Cage: music that had no beats, no harmony, and no melody in any normal sense of the word. If you did any of those things you were looked down on as a simple composer. These people have grown up in an age when you can listen to Bach and listen to Radiohead, and that’s just the way that life is. They play differently because their gesture is based on classical and popular influences. The younger generation knows how to interpret my music, new or old. A style is a style, and it’s more so about the gesture and feeling that they’re following.

OTR: It seems like that distinction between classical and popular is starting to dissolve through composers like Jonny Greenwood.
SR: He and I have actually been in correspondence recently. As opposed to trying to artificially fuse jazz and art together, this has been a much more organic reality. As I’m sure you know, he was trained as a violist at Oxford and was drafted by his friends into Radiohead. He’s still writing though, so this is all very natural for him. The interesting thing about that piece, Popcorn Superhet Receiver, is that if you heard it, I don’t think anybody would think, ‘Oh, that’s a piece by a rock musician.’ You’d say, ‘That’s somebody that likes to write for strings, and he likes to work with harmony. What’s that funny rasping sound?’ It goes to show that he is someone as a composer as well as a phenomenal guitar player for one of the best rock bands in the world today. And he’s not alone. Glenn Kotche, the drummer for Wilco, is doing a program of my music soon, some variations on Clapping Music.

I’m also writing a piece right now, The Double Five, which is scored for two electric guitars, electric bass, drum kit, and piano, and it is going to be played by the Bang on a Can players. And I’m doing because I want to. It just so happens that all of these things are happening around me. I discussed this with Johnny and he said ‘Look, I can handle this, but we don’t read that well,’ and that’s the division really between who’s pop and who’s classical. There are people that get their music printed on a piece of paper, and there are people, like most of those in Austin today, that are arranging things by saying you play this, you play that. That’s another type of composition, which is actually how music first started. Given that, there are more and more people that are crossing over into the other realm. Lo and behold, it works and people are coming from across the realms to partake in it. Even the audience is coming together. This is not something where 10 or 15 years ago some record executive said let’s make a crossover record. This is an organic growth within the music community.

OTR: What are you trying to capture with The Double Five?
SR: I’m looking for something that’s really hot [laughs]. I’m really laying it on with this one. It’s hard to write for a drum kit without feeling kind of trapped. That’s why people call it a trap, but I’m pleased with what’s coming out. I think people that are familiar with my work will recognize it as mine. I don’t like to write for an orchestra. I only need a few things amplified to create some rhythmic agility. I need a lean sound to get across the clarity of what I’m doing, and that’s certainly happening in this piece.

OTR: Speaking of the crossover between popular and classical, you’re meeting today with Thurston Moore. Do you have any history together?
SR: I lived in the same building as Lee Ranaldo for 25 years. My granddaughter still plays with his two boys, but Thurston and I have only met once, when Bang on a Can were performing one of his pieces. Since this was announced though we’ve been in dialogue through email, seeing where our paths have crossed indirectly in the past through people like Glenn Branca. We don’t want to make complete fools of ourselves. I emailed him about John Coltrane, and he said, 'Right on.' Basically we want to play one harmony for a very long time and bang all sorts of noise over it.

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