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The Music System

Steve Reich

Article from Electronics & Music Maker, March 1986

The quiet man of systems music tells Simon Trask why his work is so often misunderstood - and why tomorrow's 'serious music' won't be possible without computers.

Along with Philip Glass and Terry Riley, Steve Reich is in the vanguard of contemporary American composers. Yet his recent activities - including a concert tour of Britain - have confirmed his music no longer deserves to be called 'minimalist'.

Steve Reich arrived in London at five o'clock on a cold and wet Monday morning. A mere nine hours later, Reich and I were sitting in Room 104 of the Russell Hotel, just around the corner from the Dominion Theatre where Reich and his six-strong group of musicians played to a packed house two days later.

It was Reich's seventh interview of the day, and there was still another one to go. Fortunately, he proved to be both genial and talkative, and whilst the weather outside may have been bleak, inside the mood was pleasantly sunny.

Reich's music falls into the category generally termed 'systems' or 'minimalist'. Or rather, it did but it doesn't any more. As one of contemporary music's most consistent composers, he has carefully nurtured his musical style during a career spanning over 20 years, though the 'minimalist' tag still hangs round his neck.

'Whether I like it or not makes precisely no difference whatsoever', he says nonchalantly. 'It's not something that composers, or any artists, are really involved in. If they are, they're taking the undertaker's job away, because it's his job to make the box. I'd rather leave the options open. I understand that the term "minimalist" is used, and I think it's convenient to pick up LaMonte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, John Adams and Arvo Part in one little way. But as a descriptive term, then let's say that after 'Drumming' it becomes a diminuendo in usefulness, by the time you get to 'Tehillim' it's pretty useless, and when you get to 'Desert Music' it becomes humorous.'

Some history. Reich was born in New York in 1936, and in his early teens, took up the study of Western rudimental drumming — inspired by bebop drummer Kenny Clarke, whose sense of timing he greatly admired ('effortless, buoyant and executed with the minimum of technique'). Not surprisingly, Reich wanted to be a jazz drummer.

He went on to study Philosophy at Cornell University, playing drums at weekends. While there, Reich heard African and Balinese music for the first time, music that formed part of the inspiration for his decision to study music composition, under several different tutors, in the years that followed.

At that time (early 60s), all budding American composers had to write serial music, yet Reich found himself at a loss as to how to write anything in the style that was, to his ears, musical. His solution was to repeat the 12-note row over and over again, thus showing an early preference for the repetitive impulses that fuelled his later music.

Some years afterwards, Reich rediscovered African music, and in particular, 'a music made of repeating patterns in what we would call 12/8, posed so that the different patterns' downbeats do not coincide — something not really found in Western music.

'To the music of Africa I owe a great deal, and I would say entirely in the framework of structures. To the music of India I owe precisely nothing... though I do like curry.'

Yet despite his huge debt to the music of the Dark Continent, Reich has rarely used traditional African instruments in his compositions. He views structure as the most 'portable' of musical elements, and where non-Western musics are concerned, it's the structure, rather than specific sounds, melodies or harmonies, that Reich has always been interested in learning from.

'The idea of patterns in 12/8 superimposed so that their downbeats don't coincide could come from collaged chop-ups of Richard Nixon's resignation speech, or they could be African drum rhythms, or they could be electric guitars. It doesn't matter what the sound is. The great virtue and the great depth of a structure lies in its impersonality; it's there to be filled with your personality. That's why I don't like to use African bells or Balinese scales or whatever.'

Moving back in time, we find the young Reich being inspired by the unlikely figure of John Coltrane, who the composer remembers as 'making a great deal of music on a limited number of harmonies — one or two harmonies for half an hour's worth of music; it was magnificent.'

The contrast between Coltrane's spontaneous outpourings and the 'paper music' (most of which never got played anyway) of serialist students made a strong impact on Reich, and he formed his own ensemble in 1966.

More significant, though, was the friendship Reich struck up with fellow composer Terry Riley in San Francisco. He had a hand in preparing and performing Riley's seminal 'In C' in 1964, and Reich readily acknowledges the importance of the piece in 'clarifying the mix of John Coltrane, Junior Walker, rock 'n' roll, African music and tape loops.'

A bizarre mix, undoubtedly, but one which helped create Reich's first 'official' piece ('It's Gonna Rain') in early '65. It was a tape loop piece that used recordings of a black preacher ranting about the Flood. Reich set the loop going on two tape recorders simultaneously, only to discover that the recorders ran at slightly different speeds. The result was what Reich came to adopt as the 'phase shifting' technique, where two identical parts move slowly in and out of sync with one another.

The composer subsequently transferred this technique from electronics to unassisted human performers. Thus 'It's Gonna Rain' led to 'Piano Phase', and 'Pulse Music' led to 'Four Organs' and 'Phase Patterns'. The epic 'Drumming' (1971), all one-and-a-half hours of it, marks the culmination of Reich's first period.

Whereas the earlier works were concerned with letting a process run its course, those after 'Drumming' saw Reich gaining more and more control over his material. The rate of change in his works has gradually speeded up, and nowadays there's a more definite structure. Compare the recent 'Desert Music' ( 1983) and 'Sextet' (1985) with 'Music For Eighteen Musicians' (1976), let alone earlier works, and it's clear Reich is not a composer who stands still for anyone — hence the irrelevance of the 'minimalist' tag.

"Younger composers won't have done what they do without computers; it's unthinkable that computers won't have an effect on composition."

But whatever he's done, Reich has managed to stay consistently ahead of his time — especially in his study of non-Western music, something that now fascinates any number of average, run-of-the-mill rock stars. Has the upsurge of interest in 'other music' surprised him?

'I thought that it would happen. I thought it would come from the classical side but it's actually come more from the pop side. You know, nothing is good or bad — it's the musician that makes it so. There's no formula for good music.

'Undoubtedly, 90 per cent of what's done in the name of "world music" is trash, and that's perfectly normal, that's business as usual. It takes a David Byrne to do something that's musically worthwhile — and that's always the bottom line. I'm glad to see that the musical vocabulary has been enriched, because there are talented people who come along and make something out of it.'

Mention of David Byrne brings us nicely to the question of which pop musicians Reich admires, if any.

'Well, I'm not as well informed as I could be, so basically I'm looking back a few years — I really haven't caught up! I've heard some Talking Heads things, and the Eno/David Byrne My Life in the Bush of Ghosts reminded me of some early tape pieces of mine.

'But there aren't too many groups I could reel off. I simply don't spend the time listening, though perhaps I should — I'd undoubtedly get something out of it. But I'm probably still back in the Eno, Bowie, Talking Heads period. I know there's lots and lots of stuff past then. I've been beginning to hear some of the younger people on the 'art-rock' scene in New York.'

He mentions names like Elliot Sharp and Scott Johnson, who I haven't heard of, and I mention names like Bill Laswell and Anton Fier, who he hasn't heard of. There's some mental note-taking on both sides.

How about Herbie Hancock? 'Well, that's hardly what we're talking about at all. I would call that highly commercial music. I think Herbie Hancock is a very facile maker of money.'

Well, OK, he did have a particularly commercial period, but... Time is limited, and there isn't long enough to follow such things up. Instead, we reach the time to talk technology, and Reich's attitude towards it. Like so many other modern composers, Reich sees little point sticking to the classical music rule's and steering clear of electronics. He uses synthesisers regularly, even though he sees them mainly as instruments of convenience, and confines their use to organ and brass sounds.

In fact, Reich's experience with electronic devices goes back to the phase-shifting pulse gate, made specially for Reich in 1969. It was a primitive construction that allowed up to 12 monophonic inputs (acoustic or electronic) to be delayed individually, effectively allowing a continuous phase-shift controllable in real-time. But Reich soon abandoned the device for two reasons: massive unreliability, and what he saw as a stiff, unmusical perfection.

Reich admits that bad experience has caused him to limit his dependence on synth technology, but I protest that such experiences are less likely these days, thanks to developing technology. 'Well, that bad experience repeated itself last night at Stuttgart with a screwed-up DX7. That bad experience is part of electronics, and part of why I don't like it. As a touring musician there's always the horror of opening the box and saying: "is it OK? No!".

'To go through that when time is short and the audience is about to arrive is just what you don't need. With a marimba, you open up the case, choose your mallets and you're ready. It's very reliable, and that's kind of a comfort.

'I find that with the time spent in a hall preparing for any given concert, the more electronics are used, the more of that time they'll eat up — and cause a nervous and diffused psychological state amongst the musicians because it's out of their control.'

What about the sonic potential of synths, the sheer variety of sounds they make available?

'That is also a strange situation. For instance, if you're a composer and you write something down and you say 'synthesiser', you know and I know that if I were to specify 'Farfisa Mini Compact' today, it would be impossible for anyone to find it. And whereas you can find a DX7 everywhere today, you know that in a few years the DX7 will be a laughing stock, a primitive attempt at what we will then consider to be the state-of-the-art synthesiser.

"Novelty can be praised so highly that you can pass over a group of techniques and say: "Well, that's been done", which isn't always true."

'In 'Sextet' I actually like the sound of these Casio 202s, but they're already extinct. I prefer their sound to the DX7, but I know the DX7 is around so I've had to go both ways: I brought over the Casios and if they break down, we've got a DX7 where I can put a cartridge in and it'll sound reasonably the same as the Casios.

'So the net effect is that I don't take synths very seriously. They're all ships that pass in the night, to be replaced by the next model.'

The crux of the matter is that Reich's music ultimately functions through the written score, a lasting statement to be recreated in the form it was originally conceived in. Reich contrasts this state of affairs with the rock or jazz musician, where the final statement lies in the recorded performance. That's an oversimplification, I'd say, but there's food for thought there, nonetheless.

Time to change tack slightly. I ask Reich if he's considered using sequencers to compose, record or perform.

'I bought the Roland Microcomposer when it first came out, and I thought: "Oh boy, this is going to be a fun toy". I used it for about 20 minutes and then I put it back on top of the shelf, where it's stayed ever since. Similarly with one of their midrange drum machines.'

But there's some sophisticated equipment around nowadays...

'Yeah, I know, I know. I think a lot of it's to do with age. I'm 49 years old and I'm computer dumb. If I was your age...' (interviewer feels distinctly young, for once) '...I mean, my son is seven and a half...' (interviewer feels old again) '...and I think that these things will become important, particularly in composition. I think there's a lot that you can do in terms of coming up with things that you might not otherwise come up with, or stimulating yourself to write something different later which came out of that kind of thinking. Certainly, I never would have done what I did without tape loops. And for a younger generation, they'll never do what they would have done without computers. It's unthinkable that the computer won't have a massive influence on composition.'

Currently, Reich's method of composition revolves primarily around a time-honoured practice for musicians all over the world: sitting at the piano. He also has a marimba and a vibraphone in his studio (percussive instruments have always been a Reich favourite), and uses a small Casio keyboard to simulate instruments he doesn't play. When things start to get a bit hairy contrapuntally, he'll use a multitrack tape recorder to overdub parts.

'I was interested in getting a Synclavier at one time', he says, 'when I thought I could use it as a sampling device for orchestration, with a real clarinet and a real oboe. But besides the fact that it would be $80,000 to buy, it would also take a lot of time for that sort of orchestration to happen. I could call Mort Silver to come down in that time, and overdub clarinet over flute or flute over clarinet, and decide which it has to be. And I'll also find out what the fingering is. But as I say, it's generational, it's personal.'

If anything, Reich's music has been moving towards traditional orchestral forces, beginning with his 'Octet' of 1979, and his next two commissions are both for symphony orchestras. But his musical thought seems to follow two strands, because at the same time there have been the Vermont and New York Counterpoints, both intended for a solo performer playing against ten pre-recorded parts on tape. This is an approach Reich intends to stay with, and he has plans for an 'electric counterpoint' to be played by guitarist Pat Metheny, with a certain number of guitar parts on tape and one live. I should have known better, but I asked Reich if the Synclavier with guitar interface (which Metheny has used) would figure in the piece.

'What I want to do is write a piece so that other people can do it. On the other hand, I want to use more than just amplification. I'd like to use the kind of effects that are commonly available. Again, I don't want to get into the extreme hi-tech end of it, because when you've got the situation of a written score, you're stuck with person A and person B and nobody else can do it. The electric guitar is like the lingua franca of the late 20th Century, and to write a piece which ends up in the closet because it's attached to one little piece of technology would be kind of foolish. There are plenty of effects that are very common, so I'll go in that direction.

'I'm trying to keep a balance between writing for the orchestra, which is genuinely interesting if I don't have to do it year in year out, and writing smaller pieces. Not knowing anything about the guitar, I just know the piece is going to be a good kick in the right direction, because it's going to force me to learn some things I don't know yet.

'I'm now going back to a lot of the earlier techniques, and trying to develop them in the light of wider harmonic possibilities and wider orchestrational ones.

'When I did 'It's Gonna Rain' I figured for a while that was that: things against themselves going out of phase. It took almost a year for me to realise that maybe I could do something else in that area.

'We live in a time when novelty can be praised so highly that you can pass over a group of techniques and say: "well, that's been done". But the sonata-allegro form yielded literally hundreds of pieces of music, all somewhat different; in the hands of the right people, it yielded a great deal of fruit.'

And in the hands of the right people, contemporary music will continue to yield fruit, too. 'Minimalism is long dead', says Reich with some relish. 'Long live Steve Reich', say I, with even more.

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

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Electronics & Music Maker - Mar 1986

Scanned by: Stewart Lawler


Steve Reich


Composer (Music)

Related Artists:

Philip Glass

Terry Riley

Interview by Simon Trask

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