Contemporary American composer Steve Reich talks about train journeys, music video theatre, and the ethics and aesthetics of sampling. Simon Trask goes along for the ride.
Steve Reich began his compositional career using tape recorders and "sampled speech". Now sampling technology is opening up new creative possibilities for the composer.
The concert programme reads: '"Different Trains' presents both a documentary and a musical reality and begins a new musical direction. It is a direction that I expect will lead to a new kind of documentary music video theatre in the not too distant future."
Since MT last interviewed Steve Reich (E&MM, March '86) he has composed four new pieces: 'Three Movements' and 'Four Sections' for orchestra, 'Electric Counterpoint' for guitar and tape, and (most recently) 'Different Trains' for string quartet and tape. A series of six concerts at London's South Bank arts complex last October presented 17 of the composer's works, culminating in the world premiere of 'Different Trains'. As the above quote suggests, 'Different Trains' introduces a new dimension into the composers' music - specifically, the use of recorded voices in conjunction with live music.
It was during a break in rehearsals partway though the series that we met. As we sat down over coffee and biscuits in the local Festival Hall, Reich resealed that the origins of 'Different Trains' lay in his desire to reinvestigate aspects of working with tape - the medium with which he started his compositional career.
"Even back in the late '50s and early '60s I was interested in musique concrete, but what I didn't like about it was that its practitioners felt they had to filter and distort the sounds they had recorded. To me the most important works of electronic or tape music were the ones which used a recognisable analogue source with emotional content built into it."
This was precisely Reich's starting-point with his own early tape pieces, 'It's Gonna Rain' and 'Come Out', in the mid-'60s. Yet he quickly abandoned tape composition because of what he perceived as its mechanical rigidity. Having since become involved with live music, how could he return to what still interested him about tape without simply doing more tape pieces?
The answer was to lie with more modern technology than the tape machines the composer had started out with. Reich took his first step into the world of computers in '86, investing in a Macintosh and Mark of the Unicorn's Composer notation software. It was above all a practical investment, providing a faster, easier and, ultimately, much less expensive method of getting his music copied than the traditional option of hiring a copyist. Once he'd learnt how to use the system, he went out and bought Mark of the Unicorn's Performer sequencing software, following his own dictum "one toy at a time". He was soon won over to the New Ways.
"To me it was great - it was like you could do overdubbing but you could be a lot more precise about it", he comments.
"About this time I became interested in sampling. To me it was like having access to a tape recorder via a keyboard. Here at last was a chance to introduce 'tape recordings' in the context of live musicians. I began to think about the possibility of doing a very large theatre piece which had been in my mind since 1980. I had this vague idea of multi-screen video, lots and lots of audio tapes, subject matter something to do with World War II. But it was very vague and I couldn't figure it out."
It was then that Reich received a commission to write a piece for the Kronos string quartet. His initial idea was to write a triple quartet, with two string quartets pre-recorded on tape and one live.
"It was the video artist Beryl Korot who said 'I know you're dying to do this sampling, why don't you do it for Kronos, they'd love it'. I said 'Ah! Thankyou. Green light'. A man I was working with in New York, John Bailin, made an approach to the Casio company and they ended up sending me several of their FZ1 sampling keyboards."
With his Casio samplers lying mute in a corner of his studio. Reich had to decide what to pat in them.
"Suddenly some thoughts that had been with me all my life came to mind. When I was a child my parents were separated, with my father in New York and my mother singing in Los Angeles. I used to shuttle back and forth, in the days before I went to school, with a woman who took care of me - an Irish governess called Virginia Mitchell. We would take these very romantic four day train rides all the way across America through cowboy country. The years that I did this in were 1939 to 1942, and as I got older and reflected on the historical period in which I grew up, I realised how lucky I was to have grown up in America, because as a Jew in Europe I would have been on very different trains."
Reich began by visiting his governess in Queens, New York, and recording her reminiscences about the "old days". He then tracked down a man called Lawrence Davis, who had been a porter on the trains that ran from New York to Los Angeles via Chicago in the '20s and '30s, and who had been instrumental in getting the porters involved in the civil rights movement.
"I recorded Mr Davis, who's now in his 80s, down in Washington DC talking about his life back in 1939-41. Then I went to Yale University, where they have an archive of Holocaust survivors on tape, talking about their lives in that period of time - people of about my age who had subsequently come to America. Out of mountains and mountains of tape, and several trips to Yale, I selected the voices of three people by ear, by how they sounded."
Reich also decided to use recordings of American and European trains from the '30s and '40s, together with recordings of a siren and warning bells.
In January'88 the composer set about editing his collection of vocal material down to a collection of 46 sentences, phrases and individual words. He had decided to develop a compositional technique which he'd introduced in an earlier piece, 'Tehillim', where the melodic content of the text when spoken provided the basis for the melodic lines in the music. It's a technique which has its roots in 'It's Gonna Rain' and 'Come Out'. Yet where those early pieces were built up from looped phrases running slightly out of sync on two tape recorders, in 'Different Trains' Reich adopts a cutup technique in which sentences and phrases are broken down further and extended through fractured repetition.
"I picked phrases which had musical content, in the same way that 'It's Gonna Rain' was D and F#. So, for instance, my governess said 'He came from Chicago to New York', which was F and Ab. The basic musical idea was to transcribe the voice melody as accurately as possible. Every time a woman speaks, the viola doubles her, and every time a man speaks the cello doubles him. I then had to surround this harmonically and rhythmically.
"What happens is that you're not setting a text, you're setting a human being. You're literally embedding a person in a piece of music. The emotional feeling I got from all those people just worked its way directly into the piece."
Once Reich had collected the samples and organised them in his FZ1 and FZ10M samplers, he sequenced them from the Macintosh onto multitrack tape.
"I went into the recording studio three days early with the producer and the engineer, and we took the 24-track and laid down the various sample tracks simultaneously with the Macintosh's click-track. So when the Kronos Quartet arrived they had the click-track, the voices and the train sounds all sitting there on tape.
"This was all brand new to me. If l had to try a piece like that without samplers it might have taken months of splicing. On a purely mechanical level it would have been a nightmare, but using samplers it was remarkably easy."
Listening to Reich's early tape pieces, 'It's Gonna Rain' and 'Come Out', it's striking just how noisy the speech recordings are. In today's age of DAT recorders this is hardly something that would be tolerated. Yet 'Different Trains' reintroduces noise into Reich's music, not only through the train whistles and siren, but through inherent noise in the archival voice recordings.
"What Tangerine Dream did to me was a cheap ripoff someone could come along and take apiece of mine and in an interesting way turn it upside down."
"They were made in 1970 on tape recorders not as good as the one you're recording me on. But that's in the nature of it; there's noise in the piece, it's scratchy. We're talking about the period 1939-41, and I think the gritty, grainy quality of many of the recordings works fine. But once I'd gotten them I didn't want to distort them further, so I used the FZ1's full bandwidth, which is more than adequate for speech."
Reich intends to spend the next three years adding video to the musical conception of documentary reality he developed with 'Different Trains'. The resulting work will be premiered in Stuttgart in late September 1991.
"It's going to he a huge project, the biggest thing I've ever done in terms of length and scope, lasting somewhere in between one-and-a-half and two-and-a-half hours. Imagine, in the simplest of terms, that instead of being audio taped the people in 'Different Trains' had been videotaped. With several screens you could begin doing all kinds of interlocking counterparts of energies. The scoring of the music will be related directly to what's happening on the screens."
Reich has already hand-picked a small group of artists to work with him: video artist Beryl Korot, lighting artist James Tyrell and set designer/costumer Robert lsraels. The musicians will be his now long-established ensemble.
The subject matter for the piece is as yet unknown, but I can tell you that we will be using documentary footage shot by us, augmented by archival footage. The mise-en-scÃ¨ne as we see it at the moment is that you walk into the theatre and you see, cinerama-style, a strip of four or five very large projection video monitors, maybe eight by nine feet each, and they are lifted up off the stage about ten feet. Where the musicians sit or stand, what they play, the character of their posture and gesture as they do it, what they are wearing and how they are lit vis-a-vis what's on the video will be the content of the theatre.
"I want to get to a point where, as much as possible, the synchronisation is handled by people playing rather than by sequencing or tape. The samplers can be on-stage, and they can be cued up to video disks. The group I'm envisaging will have four keyboard players doubling pianos and samplers, at least four percussionists, maybe four women's voices, two men's voices, maybe two woodwinds, and string quartet with double bass like in 'Tehillim'."
One technical problem already exercising Reich's mind is how to create the some equivalent of a freeze-frame picture:
"There are all these film effects we take for granted - I want the sync sound equivalent, so that if you base somebody talking and the picture freezes, the sound freezes as well. If you freeze the moment and you get the documentary equivalent of a still photograph, what is that? It's freezing a vowel or a consonant sound. That's not part of our world at all."
Would Reich's interest in combining music and video perhaps lead him to compose a piece specifically for television?
"I don't know about that, because music tends to be trivialised on TV, partly due to the size of the screen and the quality of the sound. So far in the communal experience of the western world with television, it seems that the intensity, the edge, the overwhelming emotional nature of music can get very 'Well, what else is new?' in character when you see it on TV. Multi-screen video in the theatre is one thing, sitting at home watching telly is another."
Reich's use of samplers has more in common with today's DJ musicians than with the average muso who just wants a realistic piano or string sound. So what is his attitude to today's sampling debate?
"First of all, I've already been through some blatant piracy. In the film Risky Business a few years ago, Tangerine Dream ripped off section seven of my 'Music for Eighteen Musicians'. There was a lot of suggestion on the part of my record company that we sue them, although they had actually asked for permission to use the music. Frankly, I felt that I would have to put my hand in the toilet to get my money out, and I just didn't want to do that. I thought that movie was so ugly and loathsome, and I didn't want to get involved any further."
No doubt this chastening experience helped shape Reich's views on sampling. In the programme notes for 'Different Trains' he is meticulous about crediting all his sources.
"I think that that's good ethical behaviour. There is a lot of appropriation going on in the visual arts and the musical arts nowadays, and that's something in the wind. I decided that if I was going to deal with this whole area aesthetically - and there is a sociology associated with it - then I was going to be as straight as I could. I had a couple of scenes with people who wouldn't let me use their train sounds, and it was all a very interesting human experience to find out who was a sonofabitch and who wasn't!
"You know, what Tangerine Dream did to me was a cheap commercial ripoff, period. But someone else could come along and take a second or two out of a piece of mine, and in a very sophisticated and interesting way turn it upside down and put it in a great context - and we might not even catch it because it goes by so fast. The ethical issue lies in the credit and the permission - and in a perfect world they should send me a small cheque - but the aesthetic issue lies entirely in what you make of it."
One argument in favour of sampling is that it presents the authentic experience of the source. Given Reich's earlier comments, presumably this is something he would agree with.
"Oh. I'd go for that. It's much more interesting to take the real thing and quote it photographically. If I'm dealing with a person who's been in the Holocaust I want them, because they've been there - that's who they are. I don't want an actor recreating their words. That gives me the creeps."
Unlike the academic composers and technicians who are all too often isolated from the world around them, Reich is only too happy to make use of the musical technology available in the high street.
"My basic attitude towards technology is: keep it as simple as possible. Technology's developed so fast that what was only available at IRCAM in 1980 is common desktop knowledge and ability in 1988, and has become absurdly cheap. That seems to be the movement, and that's nice, because basically what it does is make these things accessible.
"What's interesting about electronic instruments is that they're part of folk music. If you can think of rock 'n' roll as folk music - and it is, whether you like it or not - then these electronic instruments are folk instruments. They are to us as kalimbas were, but probably no longer are, to Africans.
"I like the idea of going to 48th street and if an instrument's there then I know that I can rely on it, that I'm not getting a prototype, I'm not going to some lab where something might or might not be roadworthy. Also it's aesthetically pleasing, in that you're doing something that's part of the culture."
With audio and video technology an integral part of his new direction, it will be interesting to see how Reich adapts creatively to the rapid advances being made in such technology. One thing's for sure, though: the result, when it's unveiled in 1991, will be characteristically Steve Reich.
Interview by Simon Trask
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