Composer Steve Reich Discusses His Work

November 27, 2006 at 2:56 PM EDT

JEFFREY BROWN: Steve Reich calls it “Clapping Music,” a piece he composed in 1972 and performed earlier this year at a concert with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. Two musicians clap out a pattern of beats, first together, then slipping out of sync, before weaving back toward one another. It’s a kind of trick of the ear, making something simple and unexpected sound complex and musical.

With such spare early experiments with rhythmic patterns to highly orchestrated works — this is his newest, called “Daniel Variations,” written in honor of slain reporter Daniel Pearl — Steve Reich has been one of music’s most innovative forces.

He’s credited with bringing new energy and ideas to the concert hall. And this year, as he turns 70, Reich has been thrown a grand worldwide birthday party. The culmination came in a series of concerts in New York, including several at Carnegie Hall.

For Reich, the path was long and anything but assured, but he’s clear where it started.

Did you ever imagine many years ago to be here as the honoree?

STEVE REICH, Composer: At the age of 14, for the first time, I heard the “Rite of Spring,” “Fifth Brandenburg Concerto,” and Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, the drummer, Kenny Clark…

JEFFREY BROWN: Stravinsky, Bach and…

STEVE REICH: And bebop.


That did it?

STEVE REICH: That did it. It was as if someone said, “Hey, there’s a room in the house you haven’t seen.” And I walked in that room, and basically I never left.

Reich's 'rhythmic energy'

JEFFREY BROWN: The first thing Reich found in that room and put into his own music was what he calls "rhythmic energy." Many contemporary choreographers have agreed and used his music for their dances. A concert at the Brooklyn Academy of Music celebrated that relationship.

It was just this energy and clarity that Reich had found lacking in the musical establishment when he himself was a young composition student, and music by European composers like Arnold Schoenberg reigned.

STEVE REICH: Schoenberg in the 20th century completely eliminates all harmony and eliminates basically all beat, and does so quite consciously, and this was the music that I found very, very far from my gut-level of what I was looking for in music, and yet it had become something dominant in the schools in America, if not in the streets of America, and therein lies the rub.

JEFFREY BROWN: There was a real division.

STEVE REICH: There was a real division. I remember hearing Junior Walker from Motown playing a tune called "Shotgun," 1964. And the bass went, "Bump, ba di da, ba dum dum. Di da, ba dum dum." And you were waiting around for -- you know, where's the B part? There was none.

JEFFREY BROWN: It never came.

STEVE REICH: It never came. And that tension from that repetition of this one bass line made the tune have a kind of force that I had never -- and a lot of other people had never heard before.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you thought there was potential for bringing that into serious classical music?

STEVE REICH: Well, it was coming from -- exactly.

Fusing technology with tradition

JEFFREY BROWN: Reich was also hearing and studying African drumming and Balinese gamelan music. He wrote his piece, "Drumming," in 1971 for small drums, marimbas, and glockenspiels, playing with and against each other.

STEVE REICH: Why? So that you could have a web of interlocking patterns, forming this counter-planar web, where you couldn't really tell who was playing what, and you heard all of these sub-patterns. Your mind would hear all of these things.

JEFFREY BROWN: If one hallmark of Reich's music is the use of repetition and variation to create a kind of ritual sensation, another is fusing technology with tradition. In different trains, played at the Denver concert, a string quartet performs live, accompanied by a tape of music the quartet has previously recorded, as well as voices and train whistles, the sounds Reich heard on his cross-country trips as a boy.

And in a later section, the sounds that Holocaust victims heard as they were taken by train to the death camps. His music, Reich says, taps into something old and creates something new.

STEVE REICH: You can hear some kind of melodic material that you might even whistle or hum, something that you might very well tap your foot to, something that is traditional, but in some way you haven't heard before. It's not a rerun, a poor imitation of Mozart or a poor imitation of John Coltrane, for that matter.

But it somehow reaches out to people and hits them in those experiences as if, "Oh, this is something new, but I can identify with it because it has the basics of music. It has some harmonic center. I know where that is. I could feel it."

The emotional element

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you think of these things as intellectual exercises, or is it, "How is this going to sound? Is it emotional?" What is it for you?

STEVE REICH: Bach said that -- when asked a similar question, "das effect," the emotional effect. And, you know, who am I to argue with the greatest composer who ever lived? Or, you know, Duke Ellington, "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing."

If the music doesn't reach out and grab you emotionally, it's failed, period, end of remark. And the failure lies with the composer, period. But if the music grabs you, then you may want to find out what -- like the first time you heard Bob Dylan, did you understand a word he was saying? But there was something in me that thought, "You know, there's something interesting about this guy."

JEFFREY BROWN: Indeed, there is something interesting in Reich's music even if you don't always know quite what's going on. And having been influenced by pop culture, his experiments with rhythm and electronics have now in turn influenced a generation of rock musicians and film composers. For a long time, a large part of the music world didn't know what to make of Reich or even how to characterize his music.

STEVE REICH: You could find it in two or three bins in the record store in the days when there used to be record stores.

JEFFREY BROWN: Nowadays, Steve Reich is feted in the great concert halls, and the clapping is all for him.