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Steve Reich & Beryl Korot: The Cave | Steve Reich

Article from Music Technology, August 1993

Pioneering documentary music video theatre

Mixing live music with multi-channel video, The Cave is a groundbreaking new music theatre piece by composer Steve Reich and video artist Beryl Korot - serious art for the MTV generation...

When the sorrows of the world pour daily into our living rooms through the TV screen in a kind of performance art of misery, what should be the response of artists living and working today? Should they attempt to grapple with the harsh and often complex realities of life around them, or should they portray other visions of life? For the American composer Steve Reich, the answer is clear.

"We're living in a society where we really need to take account of reality, nothing more, nothing less," he says. And his latest work, a large-scale music theatre piece developed in collaboration with his wife, the video artist Beryl Korot, does just that. Premiered in Vienna during May of this year, it was also staged during June in Amsterdam, which was where your writer travelled to in order to see it and to talk to its creators.

Four years in the making, The Cave is a multiple media work of impressive breadth and depth. Using the Biblical story of Abraham and Sarah as a narrative framework (see 'The historical background to The Cave' on page 28), Reich and Korot have explored the meaning which this story holds today for the people of three different cultures - Israeli, Palestinian and American. In doing so they have created a form of art well suited to the age of MTV and CNN: documentary music video theatre.

Essentially, The Cave adds a video dimension to the concept of documentary musical reality which Reich developed in his previous piece, Different Trains, a concept which revolves around the use of literal speech samples and 'speech melodies' derived from these samples (see MT's January '89 interview with Steve for more details). The Cave's speech samples are transplanted into the realm of video, in the form of short video clips taken from the many interviews conducted by Reich and Korot in preparation for the composition of the piece. With the involvement of Korot - a video artist of long standing who pioneered multiple-channel video works in the 70s (see 'Beryl Korot' on page 28) - the visual dimension of The Cave involves a great deal more than simply replacing the sampler with a TV monitor.

The Cave is a theatrical piece, complete with an elaborate 3-tier stage set, the centrepiece of which is an 'arch' of five 6' x 8' video screens. The 13-piece musical ensemble - a typically Reichian collection of keyboard, wind, string and percussion players - mostly occupy centre stage on the lowest tier, within the frame of the video arch, while the four singers alternate between the middle and upper tiers (which are linked by means of two spiral staircases), always remaining outside of the arch.

A combination of moving images and still pictures are back-projected onto the five screens. The moving images consist for the most part of 'talking heads' - the individual interviewees taped responding to questions asked by Reich and Korot - while the accompanying stills are blown-up segments of single video frames 'grabbed' from the interviews. In addition to being part of an elaborate visual counterpoint constructed by Korot on her multiple screens, the stills act as visual characterisations of the interviewees - and sometimes, when the link with a particular interviewee has already been made, they also act as visual cues, indicating the imminent reappearance of an interviewee. You don't have to be 'video-smart' to follow The Cave, but it helps.

While parallels can be drawn with 'soundbite culture', The Cave is a densely-constructed and slowly-evolving piece which avoids the easy consumption tactics of mainstream TV. For one thing, it doesn't have a straightforward narrative structure; while there is narrative, in the form of text 'typed' live onto multiple screens in several languages, The Cave is primarily about commentary - specifically, the diverse views expressed by the 54 interviewees on the characters and events of the narrative. The three Acts into which the work is divided focus respectively on the Israeli, Palestinian and American perspectives. Lasting 2 hours 16 minutes in total, The Cave itself is an extended commentary on how people's views are shaped by the culture in which they live.

The interviewing for The Cave was done by Beryl and Steve in Israel (East and West Jerusalem) and America (New York and Texas) using a Panasonic CLE200 S-VHS camera and AG7400 S-VHS deck and a Neumann shotgun microphone.

"When we started to think about doing this work," Beryl recalls, "I was saying to people 'We're going to go S-video through this whole thing until the final mastering', and people were saying to me 'This is a big mistake you're making, it's just not a good enough format'. I was saying 'Well, this is all that I can afford, and if you're careful enough with the lighting you can do it.' I don't know in retrospect whether I would have had the courage to say that all over again. But it worked."

Back home, the pair had adjacent soundproofed studios, and it was here that the creative process began.

"An important point about the use of technology in this piece," Beryl says, "is that, for the four years which preceded getting the playback system designed for the performance, we each worked separately with the equipment that we had in our own studios, without engineers, without anybody else doing the editing, just by ourselves, as artists would work with their tools. The interesting question was: could we use these tools of today to really sustain something that had depth and breadth, like in traditional art with traditional tools?"

The first stage involved Steve sifting through the videotaped material to pick out the vocal phrases that he wanted to use musically.

"Let's say I was working on Act I Scene 1 and I wanted to know what the Israelis said about Abraham," he explains. "Beryl had catalogued everything that was said, which was no small job, so she would give me the video tape and I would go through the material, just taking the audio outs from the 7400 deck. When I hit on a sentence where I thought 'This is really a winner', I would sample it into the FZ1s and then notate the speech melody down on manuscript paper.

"So I'd end up with two or three pages in my notebook of quotes in different keys and different tempos and different metres, and then the work of composition was to take a selection of these that would tell a story and at the same time move with reasonable grace from musical section to musical section."

Grappling with the problem of giving the music an overall harmonic thrust in each Act, Steve found the solution in the documentary material itself. Acts I and II both conclude with video material shot in the mosque at Hebron - and the resonant frequency inside the mosque gave him his concluding harmony: A minor.

"What made this piece work, what made it happen, was our commitment to the documentary aspect of it," he says. "Whenever there was an aesthetic problem, musical problem or dramatic problem, a further, closer examination of the documentary material itself would provide answers."

"And to visual problems," adds Beryl. "In a way the video and the music inhabited separate territories and then came together because of this common bond to the documentary, and because of the technological link provided by SMPTE."

With his FZ1s given over to the speech samples, Steve transferred all his instrumental samples into Digidesign's SampleCell board for the Mac. Both were controlled from Finale, which he used in preference to manuscript paper for writing and scoring the music.

"I'd save the music as a Finale file, but then I'd save it also as a MIDI file so that I could open it in Performer," he recalls.

"Performer was the way for me to communicate with Beryl, because it's marvellously hardy with SMPTE and it displays the bar number and the SMPTE time simultaneously. SMPTE was our lingua franca; Beryl would come into my studio and say 'Where's Isaac?' and I'd say 'He's 23:06:42:21', then she'd say 'Thank you, bye bye'; that was our conversation! She had pages of Finale printout with all these red numbers on them, which were the SMPTE numbers."

The two studios were linked by means of three cables - two audio and one SMPTE - which ran out of the window of one studio and in the window of the other! When the time came to transfer the music for Beryl to work with, Steve slaved Performer on his Mac to her video setup via SMPTE and they downloaded the output of SampleCell via the audio link.

"We're living in a society where we really need to take account of reality, nothing more, nothing less." Steve

In her studio, Beryl had a 5-monitor setup with five Panasonic VCRs which she ran from her Mac via a control interface developed by Californian company Advanced Remote Technology Inc.

"The first decision I made about the piece, which preceded anything that Steve did," she says, "was that it was going to be a work visualised on five screens - and five screens in a particular shape into which the musicians would be placed. Having five screens gives you a tremendous variety of options yet it also keeps the focus. So in the studio I always worked five at a time in making my decisions for each section of the piece.

"Steve had to give me the music first in order for me to be able to decide how I was going to place the people on the screens. Essentially the first thing I did when he gave me the music was say to myself 'OK, we have six characters here, where do I want them to go?' So, for instance, I would decide 'OK, Nadine is very prominent in this Act, I'm going to give her the 1/4 position. She's talking against Ephraim Isaac, who's the other most dominant person, so I'm going to give him the 2/5 position.' Then there were other characters who would get 2/4, 1/3, 3/5, and those people would all get placed. The reason I doubled the speaker was because you immediately abstract them once you double them, they're no longer documentary, and I wanted to take the material to another plane."

Beryl used a PC-based setup to work on the stills which complement the moving images. Each still was created by 'grabbing' a single frame from video into the computer, then using graphic editing software to zoom in on a section of the grabbed image. The resulting 'blown-up' image could then be written back out onto videotape. Beryl had one record VCR hooked up to the Mac (for the video editing) and another to the PC (for the stills creation); when she had finished writing to a tape in one of these machines, she could transfer it to one of three playback VCRs, and start working on another tape. In this way she was able to build up her 5-channel video 'tapestry'.

Once the tapes were compiled, they were mastered to Betacam and backed up onto digital tape, and the masters were sent to 3M in Minneapolis for transfer to laser video disc -the chosen playback medium for the live performances of The Cave.

The computer-controlled laser disc playback system was designed by Ben Rubin, a graduate of the MIT Media Lab, and built to his specification by David Canning, who has previously built video systems for the Academy Alwards and a Genesis tour. In this system the laser discs are controlled from a playlist running on an IBM PS/2 computer - with a second PS/2 running in parallel so that it can be switched in should the first fail.

The control interface between computer and players is another ARTI system, with one master control box running two slaved boxes which control five laser disc players each. Because each laser disc holds only 30 minutes of video, each channel has two players assigned to it, and the control system is able to switch, under automation, from one player to another. When the 2nd players of each pair take over, discs can be replaced manually in the 1st players.

The final stage in the playback system is the projection setup, which was designed by Jack Canning. This takes the laser-disc outputs and displays them on the five screens.

"For me the piece succeeding in visual terms really depended on how well his projections looked," Beryl says. "His use of double projectors for each screen, just run-of-the-mill Sony projectors but piggy-backed so that the luminance is doubled per screen, was just phenomenal. I worked for four years looking at all the images either on the computer screen or on video monitors, and I was terrified... But Jack kept reassuring me, and showed me occasionally over the years what the images would look like."

At one time, a work such as The Cave would have existed only in a single form. However, with the plethora of media technologies and outlets available today, Steve and Beryl plan to make it available in a variety of formats, ensuring that it will reach a much wider audience than the relatively few who can attend a live staged performance.

"Using onscreen windows, and reconceptualising each of the different scenes, I'm going to be reconstructing the piece for a single video channel," says Beryl, "and that will then become a videodisc to be distributed by Voyager and Nonesuch and a VHS tape to be distributed by Warners."

"There will be a single CD of some of the music from The Cave, too" Steve adds, "and we're looking at the possibility of doing a smaller, single-screen version of the piece, with most of the sound taken out, that I could tour as a concert piece with my musicians."

"Also we'll be doing a video installation of The Cave " continues Beryl. "The piece as it existed in my studio will be shown at the Whitney Museum of American Art, because it does show the basic skeleton of the work as it is without the musicians and singers, as we worked on it."

And Steve already has his sights set on new possibilities for future works.

"I could see doing a piece designed for television using onscreen windows, especially after Beryl's done the single-channel version of The Cave," he says. "People see this kind of work as cutting edge, hi-tech, but basically there's a folk technology aspect to it. The technology is only going to get cheaper, and better at the same time. This is urban folk art, and you're going to see more and more of it, so I think in a sense time is on our side, because as time passes The Cave will begin to seem more central to the culture.

"In fact, as far as I'm concerned, The Cave is not the end of something, The Cave is the beginning of something, for us and I hope for other people. I hope other people will say 'Well, that's nice, but... take that!' I mean, I think we're up for moving music theatre on. I think it's exciting to see musical theatre be not just the Broadway musical on the one hand and opera on the other. So I hope The Cave is the beginning of a dialogue with a lot of people, and the MTV people for sure."

Just as surely as the merging of technologies is bringing artists from different disciplines closer together, so it is also breaking down the barriers which have separated 'serious' and 'popular' cultures in the past. The Cave exemplifies these changes, and as such is a landmark work. In its pursuit of 'documentary reality' it is also a brave work, dealing as it does with a reality which is full of religious and political tensions. And in the array of artistic and technological techniques it employs, it is also a challenging work, one which opens up many new possibilities for artists working with today's media technologies.

"There's no telling how one could present The Cave very effectively five years from now, says Steve. "And there's no telling what our next piece will be like. But probably it will happen sometime before the millenium ends!"

In the meantime, you can experience The Cave for yourself by getting along to one of the seven shows taking place at London's South Bank arts complex during late August (see 'Live dates' above). Oh, and try to get along to one of the earlier shows, because chances are you'll want to see The Cave a second time, and a third time...

The historical background to The Cave

The Cave takes as its narrative framework the Biblical story of Abraham and Sarah. The cave in question is the Cave of the Patriarchs, final resting place of Abraham, Sarah and their descendants. According to Jewish mystical sources, this cave is a passageway back to the Garden of Eden; it is also said that Adam and Eve are buried there.

Located in the largely Arab town of Hebron on the Israeli West Bank, the cave has great religious significance for both Jews and Muslims. While Jews are descended from Abraham and Sarah through their son Isaac, Muslims trace their lineage to Abraham through his son Ishmael, who was born to Sarah's handmaid, Hagar.

Today the cave site is still dominated by a 12th-century mosque. Although the mosque remains under Moslem jurisdiction, the Israeli government maintains a presence at the site, making it the only place in the world where both Jews and Muslims worship.

Isaac and Ishmael came together at the cave to bury their father. Today, it stands as both a reminder of common heritage and a symbol of the possibility of reconciliation for Palestinians and Israelis.

Beryl Korot

A pioneer of multiple-channel video works, American video artist Beryl Korot is best known for her 4-channel video installation Dachau 1974 and 5-channel installation Text and Commentary, both of which have been exhibited in galleries and museums internationally.

Drawing on the ancient technology of the loom for inspiration, she developed the concept of a multi-channel 'video tapestry' in which paired channels carrying the same video material are 'woven together' over time, with each channel articulating its own rhythm through the alternation of image and grey leader tape.

She also co-founded and co-edited Radical Software magazine (1970), the first publication to document the work and ideas of artists on alternatives to existing communications systems, and in 1976 co-edited Video Art.

Between 1980 and 1988 she devoted herself full-time to oil painting, creating works on handwoven and traditional linen canvas which were based on the characters of written language.

In 1989 she returned to working with video when she and composer Steve Reich began filming documentary material for The Cave. Over the next four years she developed a multiple-channel video realisation of this material, drawing on her earlier concepts while also using computer-based video and graphics technology to explore new creative possibilities.

Steve Reich

Now 56 years old, and with a compositional career spanning almost 30 years behind him, Steve Reich has a substantial and diverse canon of works to his name. Formative encounters with bebop music, the ferocious, angular rhythms of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, the complex polyrhythms of African drumming and Balinese gamelan music, and the repetitive, pattern-based music of Terry Riley's pioneering composition In C gave him a fundamentally rhythmic take on music. Later, as a composer in his own right, he instinctively rejected the serialist abstractions of the European post-war avant-garde in favour of complex, pulsating rhythmic tapestries of music based on pattern and repetition, music which unfolds gradually, almost imperceptibly over time, with a powerful hypnotic quality to it which draws the listener in.

His compositions range from the early phase pieces for tape (It's Gonna Rain, Come Out) through the classic percussion pieces small (Clapping Music, Music for Pieces of Wood) and large (Drumming) to the more more melodic ensemble pieces (such as Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ, Music for Eighteen Musicians and Tehillim), the large-scale orchestral works (The Desert Music, Three Movements, Four Sections) and the Counterpoint series of multitracked solo instrument pieces (including Vermont Counterpoint for flute and Electric Counterpoint for guitar). Around two thirds of his compositions are available on record, primarily on the Nonesuch and ECM labels.

One of the few contemporary 'serious' music composers to have acquired - and maintained - a popular following over the years, his music is now reaching a new audience and acquiring a new relevance in the realm of ambient dance music (see 'The ambient connection').

Cave kit

Field recording

  • Neumann shotgun microphone
  • Panasonic CLE200 S-VHS video camera
  • Panasonic AG7400 S-VHS video deck


Beryl Korot
  • Advanced Remote Technology Inc media synchronisation network consisting of 1 ARCHI master control box and 5 ARM 'individual video deck controllers
  • Apple Macintosh Plus computer fitted with 16Mhz Radius Rocket accelerator board
  • 386 PC-compatible machine fitted with Truevision AT Vista 32-bit-colour frame-grabber board
  • Panasonic AG7500 record video deck (x2)
  • Panasonic AG7510 playback video deck (x3)

  • Advanced Remote Technology Inc Video Publisher video editing software (Mac)
  • AT&T Rio graphics manipulation software (PC)
  • High-resolution QFX graphics manipulation software (PC)

Steve Reich
  • Apple Macintosh IIci computer
  • Casio FZ1 and FZ10M samplers
  • Digidesign SampleCell board

  • Mark of the Unicorn Performer sequencing software
  • Coda Finale notation software

Visual performance

  • Advanced Remote Technology Inc Pro MC media controller (x3)
  • IBM PS/2 DOS computer (x2)
  • Pioneer LD-V 4400 laserdisc player (x12)
  • Sony video projectors (x10)

The ambient connection

The Orb's sampling of Electric Counterpoint on 'Little Fluffy Clouds', the opening track off their influential 1991 debut album The Orb's Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld, is perhaps the most high-profile example of the connection between Steve Reich's music and today's 'ambient' dance scene. Respected ambient DJ Mixmaster Morris considers Reich's music to have been massively influential on the development of the ambient scene. Himself a big fan of Steve's music, he has often opened his DJing sets with Music for Eighteen Musicians.

"I always play loads of his stuff out," he says. "As well as Music for Eighteen Musicians I often play Vermont Counterpoint, sometimes Octet, 'Drumming Part 3' I've used quite a lot, and Come Out I've played once or twice for the more hardcore event. I played Electric Counterpoint at Glastonbury. His music is so contemporary, it's directly parallel to what people are doing now."

Live dates

UK performances of The Cave will be taking place in London at the Royal Festival Hall from Wednesday 18th to Monday 23rd August at 7.30pm, with an additional performance at 3pm on Sunday 22nd.

Tickets ranging in price from £7.50-£25.00 can be obtained from the Royal Festival Hall 1 box office, tel: (Contact Details).

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Publisher: Music Technology - Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.

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Music Technology - Aug 1993


Steve Reich


Composer (Music)

Related Artists:

Philip Glass

Terry Riley

Interview by Simon Trask

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> Toys R Us

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