The Reich Stuff
Steve Reich & Beryl Korot's The Cave | Steve Reich
Steve Reich has long been known for his pioneering musical projects and alliances. His latest venture involves his video artist partner Beryl Korot, and combines video, sampled speech, and live and sequenced music in a new form of musical theatre. Nigel Humberstone finds him in The Cave.
The Cave is Steve Reich's latest work, a multi-media project and debut collaboration between Reich and his wife, video artist Beryl Korot. It's a fascinating story based around the Cave of Machapela in Hebron, legendary burial site of the biblical patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Punctuated with both visual and aural narratives, the production explores religious identities and is being heralded as a new genre of musical theatre.
"Basically The Cave is a story told three times," recounts Reich at our meeting in London following the show's presentation in Amsterdam. "It's the story of Abraham and his family; Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael and Isaac. Firstly a perspective from Israeli jews, secondly Palestinian muslims and thirdly Americans. And it's a fantastic story — you know it's about sibling rivalry and half brothers — I have several; my parents were divorced and I have a half brother who's a muslim."
Preparation and research for The Cave has entailed four years of work including numerous trips to the Middle East.
"We came back from field trips with several hundred hours of video tape. Beryl had the job, which she wanted, to go through it. Quite a lot she just trashed straight away — we have it as an archive I suppose, but it was rejected, sometimes due to the casting. People may have been interesting to look at and listen to, but when the shots came out they weren't good.
"Once that was worked out we started at, say, Act 1, Scene 1 and Beryl would give me a tape of what she thought were the most interesting selections. She'd give me maybe 20 to 25 minutes of short and fairly long fragments and I'd play them back in the studio — just the audio; I didn't see them, although some I'd be familiar with.
"Then when I found something that caught my ear, I would write down in notation what they were saying. If I couldn't hear, then I'd put it in a sampler and go over each syllable. And I'd end up with a notebook with about three or four pages of sentences, phrases and a stack of floppy disks. Then I'd close the door, sit down at the piano and put this together so that it made sense in English, told a story and was also moving from chord to chord or from key to key. There were a lot of modulations necessary and sometimes I had to make changes in key that I wouldn't normally do. And this proved very interesting, because it actually made me invent some harmonic moves that will now find their way into other pieces.
"People build up habits and harmony can be habit forming — and this piece was a good corrective to that.
"When that was done, I'd send data back to Beryl. After work on the piano, I put the music into notation using Coda's Finale software and then loaded it into Performer via a MIDI file. If you're working with timecode then Performer is 'the' programme to use — it's very SMPTE friendly. We had three wires running out of my studio into Beryl's; one timecode and two for the stereo transfer of audio. So I'd send that back to her along with a score, and on this score (printed out via Finale) I'd put in the SMPTE numbers over each bar, so that we'd have a shared language — and that would supply her with what we called the 'talking head' channel. In other words, the music I sent her would determine one of the video channels — ie. when would the head come on and say something. All the rest was her decision and very often she'd double the talking head to make it more abstract."
Treating the vocal phrasings as organic material, Reich was careful not to alter the source sounds or timbre by way of pitching or synthetic processing.
"I didn't for a number of reasons, one being that although it's easy to do with the sampler, when you realise what you need to go through in order to sync it back up with the video, you think again. It's an extensive, difficult and annoying process, so it's much better to say 'look, keep the things as they were.' It's a more elegant solution, quicker and less expensive. The ethos of the piece is that I'm working with real people — I'm dealing with them and my burden is to take them as they are and find a context in which I can go from four flats to three sharps. That's part of the discipline in the piece.
"In Different Trains, I did pitch a phrase once because then I was only working in sound. Pitch shifting in video isn't easy — just to change your frames per second is a big deal, so we didn't get involved with that.
"If you're not looking that way, what you do if you run into a problem is try to find another way of trying to tell the story. The storyline can also change — there are so many choices that if the musical wall is too high to scale then you just say 'OK, let's just tell the story a little bit differently.'"
I wondered if there were any instances during the field work when Reich spotted suitable phrases.
"Rarely. I should be getting better at this but I'm fairly slow — I usually have to replay them. Occasionally there would be a winner. We were in a black church in Brooklyn, so we thought it would be great to get some of the chorus gospel singers interviewed for the last act of the piece. We got one of them and asked 'who for you is Abraham?' and their answer was 'Faaather of the faithful'. Alright, there's no question about this! But by and large if it wasn't astounding it was discovered later.
"I also discovered that people talk within a normal decibel range, and in a relatively compressed fashion, to take an electronic metaphor. But I noticed that the more heavy-duty academics had quasi-dynamic ranges, which were very difficult to record and also slightly annoying, but also very useful for dramatic roles."
As a performance, The Cave is an adventurous and ground-breaking technical production. Its scale is evident in the multiple funding, sponsorship and commissions it has received. The stage is dominated by five large (8 foot x 10 foot) video screens, positioned for theatrical impact with two lower screens and three above. Backstage there is a rack of no less than 1-2 Pioneer LD-V laserdisc players which are taking code from a single IBM PS/2 computer (with a second running in parallel as a back-up).
"We went to video disc because we were told by a lot of people that you can't use tape in a situation where you've got to stop and start reliably. So Beryl shot the whole piece in S-video (using a Panasonic CLE200 S-VHS camera), a format they call 'industrial' in the states, and it was mastered onto Betacam and then sent out to 3M, who have a one-off video disc programme which is reputedly the best. The discs are playing backstage, and if there's no problem in the show they just start at the beginning and go to the end. But there is the possibility that, say, if the violinist snaps a string or a light blows — which luckily hasn't happened so far — you can press the pause button and when it gets to the end of that scene it will pause for as long as necessary."
So why 12 Laserdisc players?
"We took a very 'what if?' attitude, so that if one of the discs suddenly decides to die there is a backup machine running with a duplicate disc."
And how did the musicians and singers receive their cues?
"Well, basically there's a pre-recorded cue track which is literally sampled strings. Those sampled tracks are on the laserdiscs themselves; the conductor (Paul Hillier) has them in a headset but they're playing in wedge monitors throughout the set so that everyone can hear it and it's actually part of the string sound that I wanted. Different Trains has got 16 separate parts for four string quartets, whereas The Cave I basically wrote for four instruments so I wanted something that was a little beefier; a little bit weightier than just the string quartet. So what you're hearing is the sampled string sound and the live strings. The sampled strings are, as you'd expect, 'on the string' without any nuance — so you have a very precise and mechanistic sound. But it goes down well and I'm very pleased with the result. Part of it is the leakage from the wedge monitors and part off it is actually put into the house so that you have a blend that is predominantly the acoustical sound amplified." Interestingly enough, Reich's job during the performance is to mix the front-of-house sound or 'run the board,' as he puts it.
Fed from the Laserdiscs are five pre-recorded tracks. These are:
• The voice track alone
• An ambient track
• Vocal ambience
• Count-off (relayed only to the conductor)
• The complete sampled mock-up, which can be brought up if a problem occurs. This also allows lecture demonstrations of the piece to be given in the absence of the musicians.
"Beryl designed the layout of the screens, which was then given to Set Designer John Arnone, who came up with this drawing, which has remained largely unchanged. It was then turned into aluminium steel (at great expense!) and shipped to Vienna.
"With the placement of the musicians I had originally thought they would face out to the audience, but our Stage Director Carey Perloff, who's done a lot of work with Harold Pinter, placed them at juxtaposed angles. We wanted a director who would really polish this thing and deal within a very limited vocabulary. We didn't need any well known directors who would basically take the show away from us. Everybody is in a costume that you hardly notice — all in sand/earth colours in the first two acts and, switching to greys in the third act. The costume design was by Donna Zakowska, who's done a lot of work with Woody Allen.
"So the team of people was very important — the music and the video are the backbone, but to realise the theatre piece, these other people were essential.
"...when I hear an operatic voice in a contemporary context I feel like saying 'what are you shouting about?'..."
"I must say that it's an endeavour, and fortunately we did take a lot of time, which I think was just as well, because there was a lot of new ground being covered. Every one of the screens was being projected on by 'piggy-back' Sony video projectors, simultaneously showing the same images, so we had to get projectionist Jack Young to come in each night at nine, and he just 'tweaked' till about four or five the next morning to get them exactly lined up."
Were the two projectors per screen employed as a safeguard against any breakdowns?
"Well, that was really a bonus. It's primarily because you want brightness. When you see it you realise how clear it is, but at the same time it's an insurance policy, because if one blows the image gets duller but at least it's still there."
The Cave opens with orchestrated typing on computer keyboards which, through a special programme, generated with every tap a syllable from relevant sections of Genesis XVI.
"These are the newscaster sections of the piece," explains Reich, "where there are people sat at computer terminals. The 'anchor' women sing the text and the whole first act has a quasi-CNN feel to it, inspired by the fact that the majority of the research was done during the Gulf War.
"In the second act, the singers can't sing the text because it's against muslim law to sing the Koran. It therefore had to be chanted in the traditional way, so we presented it just that way — recording the music of the Allah Mosque in Jerusalem. So there's a sort of ethno-musicological context to the piece as well.
"The first two acts are in A minor, because they end up inside the mosque that sits on top of Mount Hebron; in that large space, as in any other, you get a resonant frequency — and in this room, with a lot of prayers being said, you just hear A minor!
"In the first act the singers sing duets and quartets, whereas in the second they sing only solo and they sing what has been said. And in the last act they sing always as a quartet and in two-part canons, which is more typically American. So the singers had a variety of roles in the piece and that also seems to keep the theatre of the piece working."
Reich's compositions represent varying applications of diverse musical styles — and as such, his work challenges our perceptions of music and how we interpret it. His previous works have included African, Gamelan (Music For 18 Musicians), orchestral, and experimental tape phasing, as well as sampling and multitrack (Different Trains and Electric Counterpoint) styles. But as a composer Reich has tended to eschew technology in the past: does he now enjoy using computers?
"Yes. It's funny, I began in 1986 when my son, who I guess was about eight at the time, was saying 'I want an Apple IIc, I want an Apple IIc.' I argued about it but then heard that they had music programmes for it, so I thought 'well, I wonder if there are more sophisticated versions of this?'. Then I got drawn into it purely for economic reasons, because if you get asked to write music, like an orchestral piece, you get paid a a sum of money and 80 to 90% of that money is turned over to the copyist to produce, from your pencil score, all the individual parts. I realised that with the Mac — I was using Professional Composer software at the time — that you could generate the parts yourself. So it was an economical move; I would write, as I had always written, and then transfer it at night to the notation programme. But one thing leads to another and people would suggest I look at sequencing programmes because I was also working with multitrack tape.
"So by the time I did Electric Counterpoint for Pat Metheny, I was also faced with the fact that the guitar is a funny instrument. If you play a low part on the piano it sounds muddy. Chords on the guitar can sound awful on the piano, and you end up with absurd choices about what sounds good. So I started using the sampler at that point, so I could really get a feeling for what I was doing for Metheny. Different Trains was a piece that really couldn't be done without a computer, and that was the piece that was done consciously as a test for The Cave. So the computer has sort of wormed its way in and now I'm very interested in it. But, you know — trash in, trash out; good in, good out!"
Reich's favoured sampler has been the Casio FZ1 (and FZ10M) fully expanded with maximum memory but, as he explains, the time has come to move on with technology and as such he is currently discussing the next step with a number of major manufacturers.
"The Casio FZ1 — well I'm using it now, but the day is over for that model and Casio have unfortunately not pursued further models of professional gear; they've sort of dropped out of the field. So whilst the machine is very useful, and was used in the production of The Cave, I will be moving onto a more recent machine of better quality. Something that is roadworthy and with 44.1kHz (sampling rate) built into it."
In many ways, Different Trains can be seen as a precursor to The Cave. It established Reich's interposing of vocal phrasings as source material and inspiration which would shape and influence his compositional style. As a 'test piece' it attempted to integrate documentary material within a musical ensemble. Considering this as a new genre of performance, how does Reich see it developing?
"Our language is very irregular and it lends itself to this kind of music. I don't think that it's a new insight of mine, but what is new is that I'm living in the 1990s and the sampling keyboard is around and it can be done in a literal way that in earlier days was not in people's minds."
Some critics may wantonly label the new work as opera rather than musical theatre, but Reich sees a clear distinction between the two and has previously stated that many operas are made for 'superficial reasons'.
"Well, I always seem to keep going back to Kurt Weill, who for me was a very constructive model. Basically he came out of classical training and when he turned to music theatre from being a concert composer, he used banjos, saxophones and a singer who wasn't even singing. But that choice portrayed that period in history — the Weimar Republic — perfectly, because he didn't take a form that was from another era. With the operatic voice from Mozart through to Verdi, the acoustical assumption is that you've got to be heard without electronic assistance over maybe 35 to 50 musicians. So some types of vocal operatics are necessary if you're going to hear the singer. I'll go along with that. Then Wagner comes along, adds a lot of brass and still more strings so you've got these huge operatics that are necessary to be heard and I'll go along with that too. But it's almost 100 years since we've had the microphone and it's made a huge change in vocal style. So when I hear an operatic voice in a contemporary context I feel like saying 'what are you shouting about?' — it's inappropriate and seems embarrassing.
"It seems to me that if you're going to do music theatre there are two questions that you can learn from Weill's example. What is my orchestra? Not 'what does Covent Garden have?' but what orchestra is necessary to do the job? And this was my answer in this particular piece.
"In this case (The Cave), the vocal style is a combination of speech doubled by musicians, and singing, with certain allusions to pop style. It's a small voice, non vibrato and what I call a 'natural voice.' There may be many good reasons to have operatic voices — but to just assume it is superficial."
As a new form of musical theatre, the collaborative styles developed for The Cave suggest many future projects.
"Well," ponders Reich, "the main feeling is that Beryl and I should both pursue our own work separately for, I would say, two or three years, at which point we would definitely want to continue this. This (The Cave) was planned to be a 'frontal' piece, like a movie screen cut into sections — but it doesn't have to be, and one idea Beryl had was that in a different piece you could have things set deeply in space — stage space — and you could place things at angles. I'm also interested to see what interest there will be in The Cave from people working in film, commercial video and TV, because it really intersects with all those things."
I wondered if Reich was going to continue with vocal sources as inspiration for his future work.
"For the next piece I've been asked to do a piece in honour of Henry Purcell's 500th birthday. Along with a lot of other composers, I will take one of the three or four part viol Fantasies and write for a London group called Fretwork, also writing it so that it could be played by a string quartet — and that sounds great, because it totally removes me from this world and it will be like 'take a lesson from Henry!'
"The next piece would be a commission for three different groups, all of a similar size — the London Sinfonietta, the Ensemble Modern (Germany) and the Ensemble Inter Contemporain (Paris). In my mind, the title is City Life, and the challenge will be to use the sampler with speech or sounds taken from where I live in New York City and not have anything prerecorded. Basically if you play something on a sampler, a speech fragment or whatever, after one or two repeats any musician can pick up that tempo and begin to play with it. So I want to experiment with that, with the sampler as just another voice in the ensemble."
The Cave received its UK premiere at the Royal Festival Hall, Wednesday 18th to Monday 23rd August. A CD of some of the music from The Cave is to be released by Nonesuch in 1994, along with single-screen videodisc and VHS versions of the piece being planned for distribution by Voyager/Nonesuch and Warners respectively. Boosey & Hawkes have also just released a book featuring the libretto, essays and photographs taken from The Cave, with the full score published next year.
Interview by Craig Anderton
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