Steve Reich & Beryl Korot: The Cave | Steve Reich
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.
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."
"We're living in a society where we really need to take account of reality, nothing more, nothing less." Steve
"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...
Interview by Simon Trask
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