Steve Reich

We tore the wall down

Composer Steve Reich about support for culture in the US, how not to play Minimal Music and his definiton of Crossover (english version)

Steve Reich

© Jakob Buhre

Mr. Reich, please tell us something about the support for the rising generation of composers in the US. 
Steve Reich: The US have never supported composers, never. I made most of my studies in Europe, starting in the 1970ies. And it was the same for people of my generation and the same for jazz musicians – the US did not support my generation and didn’t support the generation particulary before that and it certainly is not supporting the younger generation, people like, Michael Bordan, David Lang and the people of ‘Bang on a Can’ and other people of that generation. They have to live from teaching. But the interesting ones don’t teach and they simply come to Europe and try to survive as best they can.

And in general, what can you say about the support for culture in the US? 
Reich: The support goes entirely to the pop-side. At the moment it is in the US the worst time for music, which ist not pop-music, as it has been in my lifetime. There are many newspapers and magazines that have stopped reviewing any kind of classical-music and all they do is talking about pop-music.

Concerning the future of musical-theatre – what do you think is gonna happen? 
Reich: I think in the future we are going to see more use of video or use of sampling in musical-theatre because it is the folk-technology of our time and I think it makes sense for it to be used in theatre. So you are not seeing just a music-theatre where the acting singers are the only focus, but where the focus is, whats going on on the screen together with the singers. And also the use of documentary-material, historical and real material is extremely interesting in performance. I’m working on my second video-opera, “Three tales – Hindenburg, Bikini and Dolly” – it’s about technology in the early, middle and late twentieth century. We will have one large screen and the musicians are on stage with 3 tenors and 2 sopranos. But if you think of an opera in the way of belcanto, then you can’t call it an opera, it’s a piece of music-theatre.

Concerning your creative-process, what inspires you when you are composing? 
Reich: At the moment I’m inspired by the interest I have in the technology that surrounds me and how I think and feel, that technology is going to move more and more. For example: pretty soon maybe man and woman won’t have a baby together because they can buy it in a baby-store – is this a good or a bad thing? So the cloning, the genetic engineering and the further creation of beeings was a 19th century-fantasy of Frankenstein, but now it is a realitiy, and the reality is getting more powerful as we speak. I find this extremely interesting and I want to deal with it in my music.

What role does meditation play in your works, are meditative effects your intention? 
Reich: Certainly not, I want people to be wide awake and hear every little detail. Meditaiton played a kind of role in my works before 1976, but my style has changed many times and I could not write that kind of music anymore, because I’ve done it and it’s not interesting to do things, which you have already done. I love those pieces, but I can’t write them again.

You are imitating environmental sounds a lot, are you always satisfied with the results? 
Reich: The results are satisfiing to me and everybody else, if they are well done. It doesn’t matter what you do in music at all it matters how you do it. Someone could use noises in music and it can be a big stupid bore an someone could use noises and it can be brilliant. I hope that the imitation of doorslams with drums and boathorns with clarinets and other sounds in a piece of mine like “CityLife” when they are combined with instruments make a good marriage.

In its early years Minimal Music has been critizised because of its simplicity and because of the lot of repetitions. What do you think about such reproaches? 
Reich: I think the reproaches are superficial and basically they are done by people, who really don’t know everything about the music. If these people have tried to play this music, they would have noticed, that they could not do it – because the exactitude of rhythmic ensemble is so demanding that most of musicians have a hard time if they are usually only playing German romantic music. This is the worst kind of musician to play my music. Someone who loves Brahms will make a mess out of my music. I do not work with anyone, who works exclusively with German romantic music. I think the reproaches are the result that’s a clishé, which you might find in Germany. But Anyone who understands what is involved knows, that it is not just repetition, but it’s tiny variations.

What’s your definiton of ‘Crossover’? 
Reich: Crossover seems to be, what the recordcompanies are calling, to take a classical record mixing it with some popular elements to find a mixed audience.

What about Crossover now and in history? 
Reich: All musicians in the past, starting with the middle ages were interested in popular music. A good renaissance- or medivial-composer for example had to set the popular song ‘Lo ma mé’ as part of a mass. This was done by Ockehem, this was done by Dufay and it was done by Josquin Duprét. Later on for example Beethoven used folk-songs in his sixth symphony. Bela Bartóks music is made entirely of sources from Hungarian folk-music. And Igor Stravinsky, although he lied about it, used all kinds of russian sources for his early balletts. Kurt Weills great masterpiece “Dreigroschenoper” is using the cabaret-style of the Weimar Republic and that’s why it is such a masterpiece. Only artificial division between popular an classical music happend unfortunetly through the blindness of Arnold Schonberg and his followers to create an artificial wall, which never existed before him. In my generation we tore the wall down and now we are back to the normal situation, for example if Brian Eno or David Bowie come to me, and if popular musicians remix my music like ‘The Orb’or DJ Spooky it is a good thing. This a natural normal regular historical way.

Some DJs recently remixed some of your works for the CD “Reich Remixed”, do you like the result? 
Reich: So the first two tunes are my favourites.

And the rest? 
Reich: Those are not my favourites.

Do you like the idea, that pop-musicians used your music? 
Reich: That I liked very much. I like to feel, that people are listening to what I do, that musicians, who I don’t even know, musicians, who are 40 years younger than I am, find something interesting in what I do. Any human being wants to know, what he does is useful to people and I know of course that my music has been an influence on other very important composers like Michael Nyman, Michael Gordon, David Lang and Julia Wolf and Phil Glass. There is a clear indication that my music has found interest among people who are in the twenties and among DJs, who live in a whole different musical world. That feels very good, I’m delighted to see it and it’s a healthy situation.

And what do you think about the use of classical music in popsongs? 
Reich: I think everything is a fair game. It doesn’t matter what you do, it does matter how you do it. You could do a mess out of it and you can do a good job. Only that it’s easier for classical composers to use pop-elements as the other way round. But the shoe can go both ways.

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