Interview: Steve Reich

Timothy Misir explains the genius of Steve Reich, the composer who pioneered the oft-misunderstood genre of minimal music

Photo: Wonge Bergmann

Steve Reich might just be the most important musician of our time. The 79-year-old might be considered a classical composer, but the genre he pioneered – minimal music – has rippled through the realms of rock, electronic and disco. Just listen to Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, written in 1976, and compare it to any contemporary techno DJ to hear the same repetitive rhythm and escalating, to-the-point-of-no-return energy. 

'I wanted to steal a few things from both these [Radiohead] songs'

What exactly is minimal music? It’s named for its simplified harmonic language and steady pulse that drew from folk and popular music as well as other non-Western traditions. Clapping Music, for example, is an early Reich work that’s performed with two pairs of human hands clapping, gradually phasing in and out of time.

Along with fellow minimalist forefathers Terry Riley and Philip Glass, Reich was part of Manhattan's Downtown music scene. Its composers made music that owed nothing to European classical traditions and performed informally in the loft living rooms of the composers. Sonically, they preferred ‘natural’ ordering devices such as machine logic, chance and the harmonic series, as opposed to Schoenberg’s 12-tone technique that Uptown composers favoured in their compositions.

Reich’s interest in classical music began at the age of 14 when he first heard The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky, and the jazz of Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. ‘I became a composer because I love The Rite of Spring and Petrushka, and I love Bach, and bebop and John Coltrane. Well, how can I express that kind of musical energy and vocabulary if I was obliged to write like Boulez, Stockhausen or Cage?’ Reich says about his involvement in the movement that began as a deliberate rejection of Uptown elitism.

He recalls listening to Coltrane’s Africa/Brass while he was a student at New York’s Juilliard School of Music in the early ’60s, which had a transformative effect on his musical education: ‘He plays for 16, 17 minutes on one chord, the low E, on the double bass. In theory, that sounds like the most boring thing in the world, especially at that point in time. But in fact, it was riveting and amazing because of the incredible melodic convention of Coltrane himself, and the incredible rhythmic conventions of Elvin Jones, and this incredible timbral variety – it sounds like elephants charging through the jungle – from the French horns of Eric Dolphy.’

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‘A piece like "The Desert Music" is 45 minutes long; I wonder, “How on Earth did I ever do that?!”'

Reich's infinite playlist

The piece that has since become one of Reich’s seminal compositions – and among the century’s best work – is undoubtedly Music for 18 Musicians. Composed for an ensemble consisting of percussion, piano, woodwind and voices, 18 Musicians follows a narrative arc that moves from light to dark and back again, built on a cycle of 11 chords, each the focus of a section lasting 2 or 7 minutes long. ‘It comes from lots and lots of different influences that you can hear. From Balinese gamelan, from Coltrane, from Pérotin in 12th-century Paris,’ Reich says about the work.

He also continues to venture beyond classical music. His newest work, Radio Rewrite, is a rock-inspired work for an ensemble playing almost entirely classical instruments. It also borrows ideas from a band you might be more familiar with: Radiohead. Reich met the British band’s Johnny Greenwood at a festival in Poland, where the guitarist was performing the composer’s Electric Counterpoint, and remembers hitting it off with him. That meeting led him to listen to Radiohead for the first time.

‘I went to their site and heard a whole bunch of tunes, and two of them jumped out at me, “Everything in its Right Place” and “Jigsaw Falling into Place”. And I wanted to steal a few things from both these songs, particularly the melodic phrase from “Everything” and the harmonic progression from “Jigsaw”.’

Reich says he still enjoys writing and performing music, though his age is catching up with him. ‘A piece like The Desert Music is 45 minutes long; I wonder, “How on Earth did I ever do that?!” I do shorter pieces now and I work more slowly. On the other hand, pieces like WTC 9/11 and Double Sextet were written when I was over 70, and they’re some of my best pieces. So you know, you never know!’

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