Interview between Robin Millar and composer Steve Reich

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Robin: Is life a path you are walking along or a mountain you are trying to climb?

Steve: I just don't think that way, so I can't answer questions like that. I never think in terms like that at all.

Robin: So you don't think of life as a series of challenges?

Steve: No, no I don't.

Robin: Nor do I. Do you plan?

Steve: Oh yes, I have to. If you are a professional composer you get deadlines, you get commissions. I am also working with others so I have to be a practical musician. If you want to exist in that world you have to plan and you have to be exceedingly practical.

Robin: With your time?

Steve: With everything, with the music you are writing - will it work on the instruments, will the musicians be able to play it, will they like it and on and on and on. (Laughs again)

Robin: Do you write your music specifically to be listened to? This is something that Alexander Goer and some others seem rather unspecific about.

Steve: I want to be loved. I want people to be emotionally swept away by it and if they are not then it's my failure. So of course I'm concerned with that. That isn't to say of course that when you're actually working you really can't be concerned with anything other than how you individually feel because you're the only one on the room. (Chuckles) Life has been very good to me and I have been very fortunate compared with many composers and I've learned over the years, thank God, that if I like it maybe you will too.

Robin: So like me you are sensitive to the extent that it would trouble you if your work gave you personal satisfaction and delight and then eventually failed?

Steve: Yeah, absolutely. But I mean again you can always be in the wrong place at the wrong time and people will boo their brains out: but generally speaking if that happens you really have to scratch your head.

Robin: Has that happened to you? It's happened to me.

Steve: Well it happened to me when I was younger, when I was unknown and doing extremely radical work. There was one very famous occasion that Michael Tilson Thomas sort of arranged when he was conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra back in 1970. He asked me if I had a piece for the orchestra but unfortunately at the time I was working on a piece for four organs, not an orchestra piece at all, but it's a big piece with a big sound and I thought to myself, well let's try it. So I said to Michael, "this is the piece I've got" and he said "send me a tape and a score and we'll do it". We did it in Boston and there were some boos and bravos and it was all generally very polite. However, in 1973 he decided to do it again with the BSO but this time at Carnegie Hall in New York City. Now the people who go to see the Boston Symphony, especially in those days, are very conservative and mostly elderly people who wanted to hear Liszt and Mozart and the idea of hearing four electric organs with maracas was not on their agenda. Now Michael knew that and I think he was conspiring to make a kind of hipoter le bourgeois, which is not the way I think but I was too busy worrying about whether everything was plugged in and tuned properly and playing my part, because I was performing, to think about the sociology of the audience. Of course it was exactly as he thought and while we were playing people started screaming and booing while others started bravoing. We could barely hear each other and Michael had to start yelling out the numbers and bars - very long complicated bars. (Laughter) So it was quite a scene and when it was over I was white as a sheet. Michael said heartily "cheer up, this is historic . . . . ". So yes, things like that happen. People will boo a piece but fortunately as you know I have been rather appreciated considering the difficulties that some composers have had during their lives.

Robin: Indeed. Do you think there is an irony that there is a public predilection for symphony halls and for late eighteenth and nineteenth century music when the composers who wrote these works may have imagined an audience of no more than thirty, possibly less? Do you think they would be unsettled by the thought that there was a regular audience of in excess of a thousand for many of their works now?

Steve: No, I think they would be delighted. Anyway what you say is not necessarily true. If you are talking about chamber music Haydn, Mozart and even Beethoven would have expected an awful lot more that twenty five people or they would have been in big trouble. But with their chamber music and string quartets I suppose they might have expected a smaller audience than for the symphonic works and concertos. I must say I can't put myself in their shoes because eighteenth and nineteenth century music is precisely the music in which I am not interested. (The "not" is heavily emphasised) I am interested in twentieth century music and in music written before 1750 - enormously - but from 1750 to 1900 you can take it.

Robin: OK. I'll move on. Messaien reflected near the end of his life that perhaps he had talked and written too much in an explanatory sense about his music. Before I ask a question about that, my personal feeling I found in the case of Messaien, Schoenberg, yourself, certain of those explanations were a very helpful access to the path of a purely musical delightful experience. Have you any comments or thoughts as to why he would have made such a reflection?

Steve: I think what a composer writes or does not write about their music makes very little difference. It may be a good contribution to the literature of writing about music and Messaien certainly did make a contribution to that, Rimbaud made a contribution and so did Debussy and in a way so did Charles Ives - even Stravinsky in his own way. But no one would care two cents about any of it if they did not first love the music. So maybe what Messaien was really saying is that he has not been clasped to enough bosoms in love and he blamed it on that. I really don't know. I have no idea what he was thinking about.

Robin: Being specific, would you say Steve, that if there was something scientific which you understood in your own music . . . you're going to throw this back at me and say there is nothing scientific in your music . . .

Steve: I was going to say precisely that.

Robin: So what might apply to Messaien may not apply to you simply because you do not have these musical contrivances.

Steve:  People have always written about music and always will. Some of it's good and some of it's a big bore. I have a whole book out next year on Oxford University Press and I hope it will be useful. If I didn't, I wouldn't publish it. It's not science, it's just observations about different kinds of music.

Robin: Does it invalidate the appreciation of the music if you delve into it in an intellectual way?

Steve: Absolutely not. If you have to be ignorant of something then there is something wrong with you. It's neither better not worse. If anyone goes to a concert they need to appreciate that music. If the composer says, "well you don't understand me", then that's the composer whining. He ought to be given a good swift kick because you shouldn't have to have any programme notes, the music should speak for itself. If it doesn't, it's the composer's fault. Period. Next case. On the other hand if you write about a piece which somebody has already heard and which intuitively, they like then alright, let's find out a bit more about it. You may then go further, you may then hear things you didn't hear. It'll be able to carry you further. Any kind of music that I like I am very interested in. I like to find out how it was made. If I don't care about the music I don't give a damn how it was made.

Robin: How seriously do you take yourself in the sense of the journey that you are leading other people on, whether they be musicians or audience. In a sense you have become an icon and mentor. Does or should that consciously drive any aspect of what you are doing?

Steve: Well, I think you have to be aware of your moral position as a human being, no matter who you are. If you are dealing with another person and you don't conduct yourself well, then that is an eternal mark against you I believe. The reverse is also true, if you bring some help to someone else or some joy to someone else, well then you've done what all of us should be able to do and you have made the world a better place to live in, in some tiny but real way. No one is exempt from that, not me, not any other composer. It is also true, as you say, that as people become more prominent they have a greater responsibility. Very often people excuse the great artist because, well, great artists are a little cuckoo. Well I think that's all hogwash. I think the opposite. The more someone is looked up to and paid attention to then they have to walk an even more careful path. That's true for political leaders and that's why we've had so much trouble in my country recently.

Robin: In a position of your prominence do you still have the personal freedom to re-evaluate and re-direct any aspect of what you are doing, even composing itself? For instance, could you conceive of giving up composing for say humanitarian work or is there a weight on your shoulders not to do that?

Steve: That crossed my mind at one time when I was working with Israeli musicians. I was finally re-educating myself about the Tora and traditional Judaism. I was getting so involved in it that for a while I wondered if I was going to be a rabbi or a composer. That passed and I am a composer but I've kept my Jewish practise and my education moving a pace and that's a very important part of my life. It's something that I think does affect my relationships with other people, hopefully for the better. Other than that moment I have never considered giving up composing.

Robin: So it's a question of personal morality. If you felt that is how you would best serve, then that's what you would do.

Steve: I think of it this way, each of us has been given an assignment and it isn't always easy to find out what that assignment is.

Robin: True enough.

Steve: But if you have sense of that assignment, which might take a number of years for sure, then get on with it because life is not that long and no one else can fill that place. I mean I'm not writing for the orchestra but John Adams can take care of that. He is very well situated for that particular job. I am situated well for something else and if I don't do it simply won't be done and I won't have taken advantage of whatever gifts I have been given. If I try and stand in someone else's shoes then neither that person, nor I, nor anyone else will benefit, it'll just be wasted effort.

Robin: OK. Clapping Music.

Steve: Smiling. Yeah.

Robin: What do you think of it?

Steve: It's one of the best pieces I ever did. Laughter. It's also one of the most performed pieces I have ever written and we have done it in so many different situations. I very often do it when I'm asked to do a benefit because I can get up with one other person and it works. It's been a very durable piece and a very widely performed piece and it has it's own message which I hope is a very good human one. It was composed at a time when, in 1972, Stockhausen was working on his electronic stuff and Boulez was working with his electronic stuff and Berg with his electronics and I thought to myself, mmm. So yes, I am very happy with that.

Robin: Leading on from that, if Clapping Music is one of the best pieces you have written, does that mean that your potential for the best is always there but your worst gets better as you become more proficient?
Steve: Where Gregorian chants stop and stuff like Peraten, which I dearly love, starts you lose the incredible beauty of the unaccompanied male voices singing in unison.

Robin:I agree.

Steve: And when that develops into intricate counterpoint and massive complex sounds it's great but is one better than the other? No, not really. You look for the greatest works in various periods and some are early works and some are late ones. I am always trying to do things I haven't done before, with varying degrees of success. The successful pieces may be modest but they accomplish what they set out to accomplish.

Robin: As you and other musicians of your generation were developing I perceived a difference between your work and a mainstream genre. Most people's work began to give me more and more a sense of a still life or at best moving images in a still frame. But with your work I always got a sense of forward motion, a sense of impulsion. Am I imagining it?

Steve: Well a large part of music is objective, such as what note is that, what rhythm is that and how long is the piece and what is it scored for. But in terms of what may be the most important part of music, which Bach called "Das Effect", then every man is captain of the ship. So if you feel that way then you feel that way. So you are not imagining it. Specifically I guess you sense something rhythmically bringing you along.

Robin: Interrupts. I sense something inside you which is developing or evolving the piece very delicately like opening a flower. There is a sense that even though you are not being grandiose and overt about it somehow in your developments I feel a sense of blossoming.

Steve: That's very nice, that's something I really appreciate hearing, thank you.

Robin: Next question, difficult to express. Early on in one's compositional life, yours included, one has musical influences. You're clear about yours and I'm clear about some of yours. Such as your study of not just influence by African music, Gamelan music and certain contexts of the sixties and seventies. As your composing goes through the decades does the influencing on you become paradoxical to the increasing influence of you. Do you stop learning and start teaching?

Steve: Yes. I would say basically younger people are influenced and the influences you have when young will be the pivotal ones. That seems to be the reality in the history of the world. Certainly when I was young, for instance when I first heard jazz and Bebop and decided to become a drummer it was a crucial decision aged fourteen. That laid me open being influenced by John Coltrane which in turn led to being influenced by African music. One didn't know at each stage that one thing was going to lead to another, but all those things happened from childhood on up to I guess my late twenties, early thirties. Since then I have not actively been pursuing music for the most part although I have recently looked at some Avo Part scores and read a bit of Paul Hillier's book about him. I found it very interesting but would I try to apply anything, even indirectly, well no. I did find a recent influence from a young composer whom I had influenced which is an even more interesting thing. Michael Gordon, a young American musician, wrote an outstanding piece called "Yo, Shakespeare".
He does these staggered rhythms on top of each other which came out of what I was doing for sure but when I went to look at what he was doing I thought, hmm I'm going to try my hand at that. Conspiratorial giggle. Fair exchange is no robbery.

Robin: That's a great story though.

Steve: Yes it is and it's very gratifying in a way. You plant a seed and it grows then someone harvests part of it and then re-plants something and you say "hey, mind if a swipe a few branches here?". So those branches found themselves in part of "Hindenberg", then in a new piece I've just written for the Kronos (quartet) which you haven't heard yet. It's called "Triple Quartet" and it's for three string quartets.

Robin: I saw the Kronos performing your work in London last year and it must be said that the combination of you and them is great.

Steve: Yes well this is another thing altogether and it seems to suit Kronos very well but I agree that "Different Trains" was a success. It is a great piece to play live.

Robin: Schoenberg said "there is still a lot of great music left to be written in the key of C major".

Steve: Right.

Robin: Dot, dot, dot, the New Romanticism, if you want to give it that name, makes me feel that wherever music is trying to go, it is always on an elastic band with traditional harmony back at base. Like one of those balls that you are trying to hit away but it always comes back on it's elastic. What is going on and where is music going or is it coming back like the universe?

Steve: Well I would say this, in certain respects and certainly in respect of the relationship between popular music and classical music and also in relationship to re-thinking harmony, that myself and others of my generation were not so much making a revolution as in a funny way making a restoration of normalcy. Now that doesn't mean a return to tonic/dominant a la eighteenth and nineteenth century music, but it may certainly be a continuation of the kind of music that Debussy started. So I would say that right now most young composers are certainly not turning their back on some form of harmonic organisation, and this was unthinkable when I was going to music school in 1959 through 1962. At that point the idea was that harmony was dead and if you were thinking that way you were just an irrelevant dodo and we're not going to think about you. So that was probably the most perspicacious remark Schoenberg ever made.

Robin: So the pull is very strong.

Steve: Well the idea that harmony has to be abandoned came along even in Germany but even Schoenberg himself did in fact follow all the implications in Wagner and in late German romantic music in general but meanwhile in France there was the whole other re-thinking of the harmonic language and Debussy was saying "well you know, there's another way to skin the cat here and the modes have to be reconsidered and we can have harmony without constantly thinking of it in terms of 5 and 1". So Debussy looms larger and larger as a progressive but I would say we should regard him also as the man who pulled harmony out of the trash can and said well let's have a completely different go at this.

Robin: Musically you can literally see it happen to Debussy on the page. Almost a defining moment in his life.

Steve: Yes and what's more Bartok, certainly the Bartok I know and love, would be unimaginable without Debussy. I think if Bartok had only been listening to Liszt and Richard Strauss, etc., he would never have done what he did. This is just a theory of mine that in a way Debussy helped open the door and gave the green light for Bartok to go headlong into Hungarian folk music full tilt as a valid way to go.

Robin: Thanks.

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