The Father of ‘DJ Culture’
Andrián Pertout speaks to composer Steve Reich from New York about composition in the contemporary art music scene, and the latest ‘Reich Remixed’ project.
Steve Reich initiated his lifelong musical quest as a piano player, but after being rhythmically mesmerized by the drumming talents of Kenny Clarke, at the age of fourteen decided to take up percussion lessons with Roland Kohloff, the principal timpanist of the New York Philharmonic. After graduating at Cornell University in 1953 with a degree in philosophy, he then made the decision to become a composer, so began studying privately in New York City with Hall Overton, which continued at the Juilliard School of Music with Vincent Persichetti and William Bergsma, and later with Darius Milhaud and Luciano Berio at Mills College where he attained a masters degree in composition in 1963. In the 70s his interest diverted to non-western forms, which led him to study African drumming at the Institute for African Studies at the University of Ghana, Balinese Gamelan Semar Pegulingan and Gamelan Gambang at the American Society for Eastern Arts in Seattle and Berkeley, and finally Hebrew cantillation in New York City and Jerusalem, Israel.
The compositions that he consequently created became a reflection of these contrasting ‘soul searching’ experiences, and demonstrate techniques derived from American vernacular and non-western sources, as well as from western classical music craft. In 1990, he received a Grammy Award for ‘Best Contemporary Composition’ for ‘Different Trains’, which was performed by the Kronos Quartet on the 1988 Nonesuch release also including a guitar piece especially commissioned for Pat Metheny titled ‘Electric Counterpoint’. ‘Different Trains’ is a work for string quartet and tape, and using the sounds of his childhood, Steve explores a new way of composing whereby the musical material for the players is derived from actual speech recordings.
Steve Reich holds a unique position in the contemporary art music scene, and primarily in view of the general crossover appeal of his music. Due to the innovativeness of his early work with tape loops in the 60s and its relevance to DJ culture today, he is now being discovered by a new generation of musical innovators, and ultimately gaining the respect and admiration of a new audience. ‘Reich Remixed’ pays homage to ‘the father of DJ culture’, and incorporates the artistic input of a prominent list of names within the DJ scene, which includes Coldcut, Howie B, Andrea Parker, Tranquility Bass, Mantronik, Nobukazu Takemura, D Note, DJ Spooky and Ken Ishii. Classic Reich such as ‘Come Out’, ‘Piano Phase’, ‘Drumming’ and ‘Music for 18 Musicians’ is duly represented.
Tell me about your early introduction to music. How did the pianist inspire the percussionist?
SR: "Well, what happened was that up to the age of fourteen I had only heard what I call the middle class favourites, Beethoven’s fifth, Schubert’s unfinished, Wagner’s Die Meistersinger; Broadway shows; popular music, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, etcetera. And at the age of fourteen, for the first time I heard ‘Branderburg Concerto No. 5’ by Johann Sebastian Bach. I had never heard any Bach before, or any other music before 1750. And I heard Igor Stravinsky’s ‘The Rite of Spring’. I had never heard any music after Wagner. And then I heard be bop, I heard Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and this drummer Kenny Clarke. I loved Kenny Clarke, and I said, ‘I’m gonna do that!’ And I had a friend who was a better piano player than I was, and we were both interested in jazz, so I became a drummer, and started studying with Roland Kohloff back in 1950, when I was fourteen. And that leads basically to what you’re calling me about today (chuckles)."
What were the natural forces that later created Steve Reich the composer?
SR: "From that point on, it’s as if I had lived in a house and someone had said, ‘Ok, you’ve lived here for fourteen years now, we’re gonna show you another room.’ I went in that room, I never came out! I began investigating music from 1750 backwards, and I became very interested in organum, which is the twelfth century school of composers in Paris, from 1150 to 1250, Léonin and Pérotin by name. My fairly recent piece ‘Proverb’ borrows from Pérotin. I also became interested in the music of Stravinsky, and that led me to Bartók. And when I was studying composition a lot of Bartók served as the early model. A lot of my forms came out of the Bartók quartets, particularly the arch form from the fourth and fifth. Listening to jazz, like Miles Davis, later John Coltrane, who played an awful lot of music in one or two harmonies over a period of as much as half an hour, obviously had a tremendous influence on me.”
How do you perceive the influence of your studies with Hall Overton, Vincent Persichetti, William Bergsma, Darius Milhaud and Luciano Berio during the 50s and 60s on your music today?
SR: "To tell you the truth, the important teachers in my life were earlier on. I went to Hall Overton before I even went to Juilliard, and Hall is the one that got me started looking at Bartók. And then while I was at Juilliard, my important teacher there was Vincent Persichetti, who had the gift of being able to see what people needed at a particular time. I was interested in free atonal music, which is neither free nor atonal, but I couldn’t analyse the harmonies, and Persichetti was very helpful in pointing out what they were. Later, I worked with Berio, who was working with the tape and the human voice, and that certainly encouraged me to go ahead in that direction. And he certainly has to get some credit for encouraging me to go in the direction that led to ‘It’s Gonna Rain’ and ‘Come Out’. And I think that about covers those people.”
‘It’s Gonna Rain’ and ‘Come out’ certainly mark a period in your development of the ‘phasing’ technique utilizing tape loops, which you later refined in ‘Piano Phase’ and ‘Violin Phase’. What was the ideology behind the compositional process of these pieces?
SR: "These came out in 1965 and ’66, and at that time I was interested in Coltrane, the modal jazz music which was directly in conflict with the kind of music that I was hearing of Berio, Boulez, Stockhausen and Cage. All of it which was non-rhythmic, in terms of tapping your foot, all of which non-tonal and all of which was non-melodic, in the normal sense of that word. And Coltrane offered an alternative to that, and not only Coltrane, but at that time I was becoming familiar with African music. And it became particularly important when I discovered a book about it that had notation, the AM Jones ‘Studies in African Music’, which showed this music on paper. When you hear it, you know it’s exciting, you know it swings but you don’t know how it’s put together. Jones’ transcriptions showed that they were basically repeating patterns, and what we would call subdivisions of 12/8; some patterns of three, patterns of four and patterns of six, superimposed so that their downbeats do not coincide. And if you’re working with tape loops, which I was beginning to fool around with at the time, as many people were fooling around with in the mid 60s, the analogy between that and African music was inescapable. So if you put all those ingredients in a blender and shake well, you can imagine how I would come to this.
“Now what happened was that I was told by a film maker that there was a remarkable black Pentecostal preacher in San Francisco, downtown in Union Square, on Sundays, and that I should go and record him, and I did. And I went home and started fooling around with his voice, making tape loops out of it, and hearing how the melodic quality of that kind of speech, which is already hovering between singing and speaking, became further intensified. And I thought I would take two loops of his voice, saying, ‘It’s gonna rain,’ and put them at a hundred and eighty degrees out of phase so that you hear, ‘It’s gonna, it’s gonna, it’s gonna rain, rain, rain, rain.’ And I had him on two tape recorders, with a stereo headphone with two different plugs, one in one machine and one in the other. And I put the phones on my head, and by pure chance the machines were lined up in unison, and the sound appeared to be in the centre of my head. And as I was listening, it slowly moved to the left side of my head, and down my left arm, and then across the room, and then began to shake and reverberate, and five minutes later it finally got to, ‘It’s gonna, it’s gonna rain, rain.’ But I thought to myself, ‘Well now, this process that I just heard is far more interesting than that one little relationship.’ This process I heard encompasses that relationship, all the others between unison and unison, and it leads you gradually from one to the next. So I began to determine exactly how long that process should take, and eventually that became ‘It’s Gonna Rain’. But there’s also a large emotional content to that piece, it’s talking about the end of the world. This was 1965, about two years after the Cuban missile crisis, the ‘end of the world’ thinking was definitely in the air, and I was going through a divorce. The piece is an accurate journal of me in that period of time (chuckles), so it’s not just an intellectual study.
“When I got back to New York someone heard that piece and was interested in having a documentary done for a benefit for these ‘Harlem Six’, which were six kids who were arrested for murder. To make a long story short, that resulted in ‘Come Out’, and when I finished with those pieces I felt, ‘Well, this is wonderful, it’s a great technique, but if it’s just a tape gimmick, then I’m not very interested.’ And on the other hand I couldn’t walk away from it. The long and short of it is that I turned myself into a tape recorder and started playing against the tape, with myself playing piano, and that led to ‘Piano Phase’. And I saw that, ‘Well, this can be transferred to people, and what’s more, it’s rather interesting to do that.’ And that pretty much spun out most of the music between 1966 and 1971. ‘Drumming’ was actually the last piece to use that technique.”
In time, the minimalist tag was imposed upon the ‘Reich-Glass-Adams-Riley’ camp of composers. What do you personally consider to be at the philosophical core of this movement?
SR: "I don’t think it’s at the philosophical core of any music. I think John Cage and others have misled many people to think of music as some kind of coded language, which is maybe something that you can understand in intellectual terms, but unfortunately all the sounds get in the way. I think it’s an absurd, ridiculous notion, and I’d like to know what the philosophy is behind Beethoven, or Bach, or anybody. I think it’s basically a silly question. As a preference, Stravinsky said that, ‘A composer’s like an animal snorting around for roots in a field, looking for something to eat, something’s that’s appetising,’ and I think that’s a much, much, much more accurate view of what composers do. There’s something that is exciting musically, that attracts us emotionally, stimulates us intellectually, and makes us want to write music. And these things I told you certainly did.”
In the early 70s you went on to study African drumming in Ghana and Balinese Gamelan in the US. How did you incorporate these new-found techniques in works such as ‘Drumming’ and ‘Music for Mallet Instruments, Voice and Organ’?
SR: "Well, as I said many times, you’ll search in vain for anything new in the way of techniques. But what those trips definitely did do was a tremendous pat on the back, confirmation, encouragement. You’ve gotta remember that at this time, we’re talking 1973, and what’s going on is ‘Mikrophonie’ from Stockhausen, all kind of electronics, banks and banks of equipment, John Cage doing the same thing with live electronic music. So now you sit in a hall and twiddle dials, and here I am using skin, wood and metal in ‘Drumming’. And being in Africa, the feeling was ‘A’; there’s a history to this kind of music. This is not something that I’ve stumbled upon which no known human being has ever utilized before. And ‘B’; the results on percussion, especially when it’s piled on top of itself, can become much more acoustically rich and musically appealing than anything electronic. So those trips I think were definitely a kind of encouragement and confirmation. As you know, I’m not interested in imitating the sounds of this music, which I dearly love, and just because I do love it, I’m not interested in making a cheap imitation.”
Did ‘Tehillim’ for orchestra and voices on the other hand evoke the study of Hebrew cantillation both in the US and Israel?
SR: ”‘Tehillim’, as the program notes spell out pretty clearly, has no cantillation in it whatsoever. As a matter of fact, what I wanted to do in ‘Tehillim’ was to set Hebrew text, and I chose one that was very musical, but for which the cantillation has been lost. We don’t know how the songs go in the west, the Yemenite Jews in Israel know how to do it, but we don’t. And consequently I was free to compose, so I deserve the credit and I deserve the blame, but there are no quotations of anything Jewish in ‘Tehillim’. Actually, the thinking of cantillation appears, believe it or not, in ‘Octet’, later called ‘Eight Lines’, or music for large ensemble, and that’s where the thinking arrived at. But after that interest in Hebrew cantillation I really have not been involved in any non-western sources at all. I did at about that same time become aware that Debussy was at the root of a lot of what I was doing, and a lot of what my contemporaries were doing. And that led me to go back and listen to more of him and Ravel. But there are no non-western studies of any sort after 1981.”
Do you usually research your compositions to this extent or is it just part of the general search for new inspirational ground?
SR: "Well, for instance, when I did ‘The Desert’ music, I listened to Handel’s ‘Israel in Egypt’, I listened to Berio’s ‘Sinfonia’, of course I listened to a lot of music for chorus and orchestra, and then I kind of forgot all about it and went about my business. But I don’t know, I suppose it had a good effect on me (chuckles), what can I say. I think in ‘Tehillim’ I was actually listening to the fourth Cantata, Bach’s ‘Christ lag in Todesbanden’, deh doh deh doh… (Steve begins to hum the melody) And is similar to, ‘ihm tah sih… (He hums another phrase) When I was writing ‘Tehillim’ I was not only thinking about using cantillation as I told you before, which was not really the musical part of it, but I was listening to Bach. And there are some Bach influences there. When I did ‘Vermont Counterpoint’ I listened to a lot of flute music, and when I did ‘Proverb’ I had Pérotin right on the piano. So I think, well I really can’t say, but some composers certainly when they’re about to do a piece for which there is some precedence, one way or the other, will immerse themselves to a greater or less degree in that precedence, and that leads them where it does.”
What was the compositional process that you then utilized in ‘New York Counterpoint’ and its sequel ‘Electric Counterpoint’ especially commissioned for guitarist Pat Metheny?
SR: "Basically, the idea was going back to some of the earlier pieces like ‘Violin Phase’, and having an instrument play against itself pre-recorded. And it was in response to a request originally from Ransom Wilson for ‘Vermont Counterpoint’, which is back in ’81. He asked me to write a concerto, and I said, ‘No, I don’t like concertos, I don’t even believe in concertos.’ And then I thought to myself, ‘There ought to be something I can do with these people!’ So I called them back and said, ‘Listen, I don’t know if you know this old piece ‘Violin Phase’, it’s basically a soloist playing against pre-recordings.’ I said, ‘Are you interested?’ And he said, ‘Yeah.’ So once that was open I then began to see if I could do this with any solo instrument. So Dick Stoltzman and I came in contact and came up with the reality. And then I had requests from a lot of guitarists, mostly classical guitarists, to write a piece for them because they said, probably quite accurately that my music lends itself to plucked strings. But the idea of writing for a classical guitarist seemed a trifle dull, and I was mentioning this to Bob Hurwitz, who’s now the head of Nonesuch, but used to be the head of ECM in America, and of course Metheny and I were on that label at one time, back in the 70s. And so he said, ‘Why don’t you write for Pat Metheny?’ And I said, ‘Really, do you think he’d be interested?’ And he said, ‘I don’t know, give him a ring.’ (chuckles) So within five minutes I was talking to Metheny, and we were making arrangements. But it’s basically the idea of having a soloist play a piece, if you like a recital piece, but of a different nature, and one which requires pre-recording. But nowadays that’s become increasingly easier to find. To tell you the truth, those are the pieces of mine that are most often performed, and most often recorded. There are just lots and lots of performances of the counterpoint pieces and many, many little recordings too.”
Your latest release of ‘Reich Remixed’ is being presented as something of a homage to ‘the father of DJ culture’. How did the project come about?
SR: "It came about in 1996; I was in Japan with my ensemble, we had performed ‘Music for 18 Musicians’ and ‘Drumming’, and the young man who works for Nonesuch there, Hero Nakashima said to me, ‘You know, you ought to do a remix album because there’s a lot of the young DJs that are interested in your music.’ Now, I didn’t really know much about it but six or seven years before, I guess ’91 or ’92, I had been in London doing an interview for a pop keyboard magazine and they said to me, ‘What do you think of the Orb?’ And I said, 'Well, what’s the Orb?’ And they said, ‘You don’t know it?’ ‘No, I don’t know.’ So they gave me a CD of the Orb that had little fluffy clouds on the cover, I took it home and there’s ‘Electric Counterpoint’ in the middle of a drum machine and the keyboards creeping in. That was my introduction to the whole scene, and then in the years that followed that someone would say to me, ‘I heard DJ Uncle use the Come Out in such and such a thing,’ or, ’You ought to hear Tortoise, they sound like you.’ But I never did hear DJ Uncle, and I never did hear Tortoise (chuckles). So I just kind of knew there was something out there but I hadn’t been listening and I didn’t sue anyone, so I guess my stock was pretty good in the DJ world, yeah. So when Nakashima said that to me I kind of realized, ‘Oh, he’s thinking about that.’ So I said, ‘Well look, see what you come up with and I’ll have a listen.’ He then contacted David Bider, who’s head of the international division of Nonesuch in New York, David contacted Amy Coffey, who’s in London and used to work with Arthrob Coalition Records, and she was exposed to the DJ scene there. So I began getting dance CDs and cassettes from the three of them, about twenty-five mixes on different pieces of mine. And between those three people and myself we put our heads together, ideas together, and came up with what you’ve got.“
Did you have any initial reservations about your work being commercially ‘treated’ for the 90s pop audience?
SR: "No, because it’s clear that it’s not me. I mean, I’m not about selling remixes (chuckles). Let’s go back to what I told you earlier; here I’m the kid that’s fourteen years old and down at Birdland, I used to go down to Birdland, that was the place you could hear jazz in the 1950s, and later I used go to various clubs in New York and San Francisco to hear John Coltrane. Cut to 1974, and my ensemble is giving a concert in London, and when the concert’s over a young man with long hair comes up and looks at me and says, ‘How do you do, I’m Brian Eno.’ Two years later we’re in Berlin and David Bowie’s there, and I think to myself, ‘This is great, this is poetic justice.’ I’m the kid sitting at the bar listening to Miles Davis, listening to John Coltrane, and now these people are listening to me! That’s the way the world ought to be, it is not always so just but isn’t it nice when it works out. And when this thing happened, it’s just more of the same thing. You know, I’m very proud that a lot of composers have gotten something from my music; John Adams, Philip Glass, Michael Nyman, Louis Andriessen, Michael Gordon, David Lang. I mean, that makes me feel good that people of that importance and stature can find something interesting in what I’ve done. And here’s a different group of people, a second generation thereof who find something interesting. Well, that’s great! It’s nice to know that you’re of use and of interest to people, and especially if they’re musicians.”
Many of the predictions made about the future of music in your 1970 manifesto ‘Writings About Music’ have come true. What is your current picture of art music in the next millennium?
SR: "Well, I was young and brash, and I was able to do such things; right now I’ve grown old and less brash (chuckles), and don’t have any great predictions about what’s gonna happen. I’m just trying to take care of what I’m supposed to be doing myself (laughs).”
“Reich Remixed” out on WEA. Steve Reich will be performing his documentary video opera work “Three Tales’ (in collaboration with video artist Beryl Korot) in Melbourne in 2001. For further information about Steve Reich visit the Boosey & Hawkes Web Site
'Mixdown' Monthly ~ Issue #62, June 2, 1999
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