I first connected with Steve Reich's music through the many contemporary acts that owed a great debt to his work. Much of the repetition and the evolving structures in music nowadays are echoes from a group of composers who's music was dubbed 'minimal' by Michael Nyman. Picture New York in the 1960s. Reich, along with his contemporaries such as Philip Glass, La Monte Young and Terry Riley, were working vigorously to create a new musical language. Their compositions featured systems or processes (other names that have been given to their music) and often featured gradual change, consonant harmony, drones or steady pulses, and motifs.
Reich is in Melbourne next week for the Melbourne Recital Centre's Music by Steve Reich: A Conversation + Concert. It features Reich in discussion and performances of some of his work: Clapping Music, Vermont Counterpoint, Drumming – Part One, and Different Trains.
Reich is accompanied on the tour by the Chicago sextet Eighth Blackbird. His composition, Double Sextet for Eighth Blackbird and tape won the Pulitzer Prize five years ago. The performance in Melbourne will also feature the local group Speak Percussion. It's a rare opportunity to get close to Reich, hear him speak first hand and enjoy his music as performed by world class musicians.
Clapping Music and Drumming both illustrate Reich's interest in phasing – literally different parts of the music running in and out of sync. Instead of the tape that he had used in his previous pieces, both of these compositions use real performers to achieve a similar effect. They are set against Vermont Counterpoint and one of my favourite Reich compositions, Different Trains, which both use tape in the live performance. Different Trains, marked a new compositional method, rooted in his earlier pieces It's Gonna Rain and Come Out, in which speech recordings generate the musical material for musical instruments.
On the phone prior to the tour, Reich speaks about the piece: “When it repeats, it sort of shoots out a whole lot of resulting patterns. They are sub-melodies that are created by the interlocking of the two identical drums, marimbas, glockenspiels,” he says. “Your ear wanders, as it were, through this maze, which is actually there. You’re not hallucinating; you’re wandering in a reality, choosing, or just unconsciously finding, different patterns.”
Different Trains is interesting due to its subject matter as well as its musical content: “The first movement of Different Trains is very upbeat," he explains. "It’s America before the war. It’s American train whistles, which are basically perfect fourths or fifths.
"In the Second Movement, when the Holocaust survivors’ voices are there, of course it shifts to a much darker tone. There are air raid sirens in the background."
Reich is now in his mid seventies and he continues to show all of the enthusiasm and vigour for his art as ever. In 2006, when he turned 70, he was awarded the Preamium Imperial award in Music – basically the Nobel prize for music – and he joined other winners such as Gyorgy Ligeti. We wandered in our conversation to my initiation into his music, through new groups and through the Reich: Remixed album from the late ‘90s.
Whilst Reich didn't have much involvement in the remix album he lets us in on a current project. Whilst he was at a festival in Cracow last September, Reich saw Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood performing Electric Counterpoint for guitar and tape. He enjoyed seeing Greenwood performing his piece from 1987 that he investigated further and opened a dialogue with the band.
The conversations resulted in Reich selecting Everything In Its Right Place, from Kid A, and Jigsaw Falling Into Place from In Rainbows. "I want to take the two pieces and create something new – in my style." Radiohead Rewrite will premiere in London in March 2013. So something between a remix and a refix, with sampling methodology thrown in? "Well I find the melodies and chords interesting so it will be something completely new. You won't hear much of the original songs in there but it will be interesting."
BY SIMON HAMPSON
Music by Steve Reich: A Conversation and Concert is at Melbourne Recital Centre on Monday April 30 from 8pm.