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Steve Reich
© Wonge BergmannSteve Reich

Steve Reich interview

The influential minimalist composer tells us about the American style that made classical music popular again


It is often quipped that if you can remember the 1960s then you weren’t there. Steve Reich, however, was not only one of the seminal American composers of that decade, but can recall enough about it to reminisce about the period in a Q&A at the Southbank Centre. ‘I am 77 and I don’t remember things quite as clearly as I used to,’ he says. Perhaps his ability to still recall the exciting developments events of that decade is because of his age. ‘I was too young to be a beatnik and too old to be a hippy, so I fell through the cracks there,’ he explains.

The talk precedes a concert of his music performed by the Colin Currie Group, in which Reich (pronounced ‘Rye-sh’) will perform his ‘Clapping Music’ with the group’s leading percussionist. It is part of The Rest is Noise Festival at the Southbank Centre, a year-long exploration of Alex Ross’s eponymous book about twentieth-century classical music, which has now reached the 1960s and ’70s in a weekend of talks, film and music entitled ‘Superpower’.

Born in 1936, jovial minimalist Reich chats away at 100 miles per hour, delivering an entertaining monologue, part amusing anecdotes, part musical history lesson, mixed with candid reflections on his composing style. He is on the phone from his home on the border between New York State and Connecticut, having finally left his native New York City. ‘I walked around Manhattan with ear plugs in my ears for 30 years and finally looked at to my wife and said: “Enough?”’ he guffaws. ‘So in 2006 we moved up here to Pound Ridge, and frankly, looking out at trees and birds, I enjoy that more than looking at garbage trucks and cement.’ He has achieved what few classical composers can claim – he is a major influence on both classical composers (including John Adams and Nico Muhly) and pop musicians (Radiohead and Brian Eno; last month producer influential New York producer James Murphy remixed a David Bowie track and called it ‘Hello Steve Reich’) and has achieved a huge popular following, without compromising his musical values.

His musical journey is an eclectic one. ‘As a young kid, at the age of 14, I discovered Bach, bebop and Igor Stravinsky all within a month and that became the focal point of all my musical loves and passions.’ Then, at college he was introduced to twelfth-century composers such as Pérotin and, later, an interest in African drumming and Indonesian gamelan resulted in his style of mesmeric minimalism, in which long repeating patterns of different rhythms (usually played on keyboards and mallet percussion instruments, such as marimbas and vibraphones) shift very subtly.

It was a conscious rejection of the atonal 12-tone serial system invented by Arnold Schoenberg, which dominated European composing after World War II. ‘For my generation, myself with Philip Glass, John Adams and Arvo Pärt, something very different happened, which was not a revolution but a restoration – of melody, harmony and rhythm that had been lacking. And music can’t lack those elements, they are too basic and fundamental – people will turn away from that music, which is exactly what happened.’

Now 50 years after his first experiments in minimalism, he is one of the world’s most successful contemporary composers. ‘Well, yes. It is wonderful to make a living,’ he laughs. ‘The most satisfying thing in my life as a composer is knowing that someone somewhere that I have never met is playing a piece of mine. That is why I am writing music – so people can play it. And they are playing it, which is wonderful. Who could ask for anything more?’

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