Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Steve Reich 2006


Trish Murphy talks to Steve Reich, the featured composer in this year’s RTE Living Music Festival.

This year’s RTE Living Music Festival, which runs from Friday 17 to Sunday 19 February at the National Concert Hall, Project Arts Centre and the O’Reilly Theatre, focuses on the brilliant American composer Steve Reich, one of the world’s most influential and creative musical thinkers, and a cultural icon of the 20th centruy. Reich, who celebrates his 70th birthday this year, will be in Dublin for the festival, and his generous participation include’s a public interview with Radio One’s John Kelly and a composition seminar with a limited number of tickets for the public. Other highlights include an 11 hour marathon of six different concerts on Saturday 18, and a return visit by Reich specialists Ensemble Modern, who will perfom his sublime ‘Music for 18 Musicians’ and his most recently recorded work ‘You Are (Variations)’. Other works being performed include ‘City Life’ featuring the Crash Ensemble; ‘Three Movements” featuring the RTE NSO; ‘Triple Quartet’ and ‘Different Trains’ featuring the RTE Vanbrugh Quartet; and ‘Proverb’ featuring the National Chamber Choir. The festival also presents music by other leading contemporary composers including Louis Andriessen, Philip Glass, Arvo Part, John Adams and Morton Feldman.

Festival audiences will get to hear a huge selection of Reich's music, some 18 pieces in total, from his earliest work 'It's Gonna Rain', a piece for tape written in 1965, right up to 2004's 'You Are (Variations)' for voices and chamber orchestra. His music spans so many genres and his influence has been so wide-reaching that there is sure to be a fascinating mix of people attending the concerts. Is he surprised that his music has had, and continues to have such a broad appeal? "Well, I'm delighted. My success hasn't been overnight, it's been very very gradual, I think it's just gotten better as the years have passed. Each year seems to get better than the previous one, which is a wonderful thing. So I'm grateful and I'm delighted, but the surprise has been slow in coming."

Reich’s music can be exhilarating and energising, as in ‘ Violin Phase’ or ‘The Desert Music; or hypnotic and mesmerising, as in ‘Four Organs’; and sometimes it is both, as in ‘Music for 18 Musicians’. What determines the overall effect – is it the instrumentation, or does he have a preconceived idea before he starts? “When I’m writing a piece of music, it’s just me and the room, and starting at the beginning I have to figure out what instruments I’m writing for. I don’t write for orchestra for the last 20 years. I don’t really write for standard [groupings] like string quartet. When I work for string quartet I multiply them and have more than one. So I basically have to set up the instrumentation for each piece, and that says a lot about the piece right then and there. Are there any voices and if there are what are they singing? Then the text has to come. Once it is worked out, that text will have a whole lot of perspective on what the emotional thrust of the music will be, because the text demands that, it has demanded it of composers since we were living in caves. And I’m not different from anybody else in that respect, except I’m living now and I have a different set of influences and I represent a different generation. So of course the music’s going to come out differently.”

Reich’s choice of text has been quite varied, from the poems of William Carlos Williams, to Hebrew psalms, the words of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein or the taped voices of ‘Different Trains’. He doesn’t see it as particularly necessary that those words should be decipherable. “If you’ve heard Bob Dylan, most of the time you wouldn’t know what he was singing, If you’ve heard even Messiah you’d know they’re singing ‘Hallelujah’, the rest of the text you’d have to go and look at the libretto. I think basically what happens with music where text is involved, you hear somebody singing something, and maybe you can make out a few words and maybe you can’t. but if the music grabs you, if the music magnetises you, then you go and say hey, what are they singing? Then you go to the record jacket or what have you, and you see oh, they’re singing that. And then that tends to make the music still more interesting because you know what they’re singing about. And you judge it in two ways: a) just how it sounds; and b) how it sounds vis a vis the meaning. So it’s kind of like an added treat. But most of the time when people are singing you don’t know what they’re saying.” And he adds, “Of course in ‘Music for 18 Musicians’ they aren’t saying anything, they’re going boop boop boop, they’re scat singing like Ella Fitzgerald.” But in pieces like ‘Tehillim’, ‘The Desert Music’, ‘You Are Variations’, ‘Proverb’, ‘The Cave’: “It’s the music that comes first always and then on the whole if you’re interested you’ll go further. If you don’t care about the music, you don’t care what they’re saying.”

His vocal music in particular seems to have a very strong link with a much earlier sound – the achingly beautiful a capella opening section of ‘Proverb’ could almost be a piece of vocal polyphony from Renaissance times – creating at times a clarity rather than a density of sound. “Exactly. I’ve learnt more personally from music from 1750 and back, from let’s say  the 11th century to 1750, that’s where I’ve really learnt most of my techniques, and from Debussy onwards. But the middle period, which everyone thinks is the classical music period, basically has nothing to do with my music. I never listen to Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Wagner, it doesn’t exist in my musical life. For me I listen to Bach, I listen to Stravinsky, I listen to Bartok, I listen to John Coltrane. That’s where I’ve learnt my lessons from. And of course the kind of singers that I work with are people who in fact do sing Renaissance and Medieval music, and who also do commercials and scat singing and are at ease with a  microphone.”

So does he write differently for voice? “Absolutely. All music has to have some good melodic content, I’ve found as I get older”, he adds with a touch of irony, “a very simple but profound truth. When I’m writing a vocal piece, and I am right now, I’m writing a piece called ‘Daniel Variations’ which will be premiered in the Barbican in London in October and then comes to Carnegie Hall; it’s basically using texts from the book of Daniel from the Bible and some of the last words of the reporter Daniel Pearl who was murdered by Islamic fanatics in Khazikstan in 2002. So obviously the meaning of those words, as well as their sound and rhythm is going to have a very strong effect on the piece, as the psalm did in Hebrew in ‘Tehillim’, as William Carlos Williams did in ‘Desert Music’, as the interviews of the Israelis, Palestinians and Americans did in ‘The Cave’; as the voices in ‘Different Trains’ literally dictate, because there it’s the recording of the speaking voices and the melody of our speech and the melody of our singing that literally determine the melodic, and therefore to a large degree the harmonic content of ‘Different Trains’, which is one of the best pieces I ever did.”

Reich’s music tends to be built around a strong sense of pulse. In ‘Music for 18 Musicians’ he refers to that pulse as being the length of a breath, a wonderfully organic concept. “Well in that particular piece it certainly is. There’s two kinds of rhythm in ‘Music for 18 Musicians’. One kind is just a regular metric playing of percussion instruments to a steady pulse. The other kind is enunciating that pulse to the full breath of a bass clarinet or a singer, and that of course is measured by your breath, so that’s more like waves washing up on a shore, it’s more irregular, its longer.” Does that mean the piece will be different every time it’s performed? “Well to some extent, absolutely. How long those breaths are is in the score determined by ‘free’, in the sense of which one is counting on normal human beings taking a full breath, and of course that varies.”

Much of his earlier work is based around the concept of phasing, where two or more tracks of the same phrase are played first in unison and then increasingly out of synch, a technique that Reich discovered by chance when two tape recorders he was using happened to be playing at slightly different speeds. Might his music have taken a different direction if that happy accident hadn’t happened? “Well, let’s put it this way. If you’re poking around in a certain neck of the woods, something’s going to happen. If you’re listening to African drumming, if you’re listening to Balinese music, if you’re listening to John Coltrane, and all that stuff is hitting you, something’s got to go – it was in the air! All these things were out there. So, harmonic stasis, rhythmic complexity, these were in the air. And how it expressed itself, with me this kind of accident came up, and there I go!”

In works like ‘Cello Counterpoint’, or ‘Triple Quartet’, Reich uses a single music entity and dramatically augments the sound with tape, so ‘Cello Counterpoint’ actually contains 8 cello parts, and ‘Triple Quartet’ features 3 string quartets. “That whole idea is based on the idea that if you have a cello playing, you don’t really know what is what and in a sense it doesn’t matter, what you’re hearing is this web of raw sound, which is what I’m aiming for, and you can’t get that if you have, let’s say a cello and bassoon and electric bass, because they’re going to separate out. It’s like having one big gigantic instrument!” Steve Reich certainly sounds like he has had a lot of fun with music over the years – fellow composer John Adams describes him as being ‘intent on restoring the pleasure principal to contemporary music’. How does Reich feel about that? He laughs, “I accept!"

©TrishM 2014

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